Tag Archives: environment

A Tribute to Oceans, a Reminder of our Reliance

By Sophie von der Heyden
June, 2017

Most of us do not realise the impact of the oceans on our daily lives, nor how humanity has changed vast parts of the big blue and its inhabitants. About one quarter of all species live in the sea. That’s roughly about 2.2 million, with the current estimates of all species on earth at about 8.7 million and their linkages with us are far-reaching and more pervasive than we can imagine.

Water covers about 71% of the planet’s surface. This means that it’s not only home to much of life on earth, but also closely involved in many functions that provide a stable environment for life to thrive. For example, oceans are an integral part of our weather and climate patterns. It absorbs, stores and redistributes heat through currents and they play a critical role in maintaining stable climates. They are also the largest absorbers of carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the greenhouse gasses that actively contribute to global warming.

Oceans absorb about one quarter of all CO2 produced by human activities. This provides an invaluable service to life on land, especially in mitigating some of the effects of human driven climate change. In addition, microscopic plants, called phytoplankton produce between half to 70% of all oxygen. To put this into perspective, researchers have tried to calculate how much oxygen humans use just for breathing, a figure that comes to over 6 billion tonnes of oxygen per year.

The oceans also provide many other important benefits; they have been extensively used to transport goods around the globe and they are a source of renewable energy from the action of wind and waves. Marine waters are also a potential goldmine for the pharmaceutical industry with some bacteria, sponges and algae showing great promise for treatments for diseases like cancer.

It’s difficult to put a price on all of this, but researchers have tried to provide a monetary estimate of all that the oceans provide for humanity. The amount they arrived at is a conservative value of a about US$24 trillion per year. Add to that the spiritual and cultural benefits and the sheer fun of being at the beach and the list of ocean services becomes very impressive.

So why a World Oceans Day?

World Oceans Day, an international event that’s commemorated on the 8th June every year, is a chance to reflect on the importance of oceans, whether you live next to the sea or many thousands of kilometres inland.

We tend to forget about the myriad of life beneath the waves. This diversity is fantastic, from tiny microscopic plants and animals to the largest mammal that has ever existed – the blue whale. Ocean life has evolved to inhabit many different kinds of environments, from the ocean surface to the deepest known point at about 11,000m and a range from frozen seas to tropical coral reefs.

World Oceans Day celebrates this diversity and reminds us of the importance of the big blue. It also serves to highlight the plight that the oceans are facing from continued man-made, or anthropogenic, pressures.

Most people are aware that many of the fish, crustacean and shellfish stocks are overfished and that the bounty of the sea is a fraction of what it should be. With over a billion people relying on protein provided directly by the ocean, it’s easy to see how much pressure humans are putting on natural resources.

Climate change too has contributed towards changing the temperatures and chemistry of the oceans. As the levels of CO2 have been increasing in the atmosphere, so has the uptake of this gas into marine waters. The next effect has been that some parts of the ocean are getting more acidic, which is a real problem for some animals and plants that rely on calcium carbonate as part of their bodies, that are literally dissolving in these new environments.

In addition, temperatures have also been changing in the oceans, which has led to large-scale shifts in marine life. For example, in their search for cooler environments, some fish species, such as cod and anglerfish in the North Atlantic have been documented to shift their ranges towards the North Pole or into greater depths. Pollution, as effluent, agricultural run off that includes fertilisers and pesticides and plastics are also heavily contributing towards killing marine species at unprecedented rates.

The ConversationAs a global collective, with many of us living far from the coastline, we need to become more aware of the far-reaching consequences of our daily activities and how these play out not only on land, but also in the sea. All of us should be contributing towards the safeguarding of the big blue, because without it the chances of our own survival are very low indeed. So let’s celebrate World Oceans Day and with it our future.

Creative Commons

Sophie von der Heyden is an Associate Professor of Marine Genomics and Conservation in the Department of Botany and Zoology, at Stellenbosch University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related stories from F&O’s archives:

The Animal “Kingdom of the Dead.” By Deborah Jones, Magazine

 All the attention on killer whales — the grotesque mutilation of a dead female named Rhapsody in Canada, the controversies over their use in trained-animal shows, the orphans who turn up periodically — has done no more to save a unique population of Orcinus orca than it has helped to slow pandas and polar bears and elephants on their own slides toward extinction. And that brings us to the fact that Rhapsody’s story is one small part of a far bigger saga: the Sixth Great Extinction in the history of the world.

Oceans sickened by domestic disease, climate change. By Deborah Jones Report

Seal

Scientists draw a bleak picture of the state of the world’s oceans, which are increasingly acidic, warming in some areas, being inundated with melting ice, and experiencing other climate change effects. Sea mammals are washing ashore, killed by domestic animal diseases, while increasing ocean acidity caused by CO2 is killing the young of shellfish – called spat –worldwide.

Better-managed fisheries could feed extra 20 million. By Deborah Jones Report

A landmark study by scientists and economists has estimated that better management of the world’s wild fisheries could feed 20 million more people, especially in impoverished countries. Researchers at the Fisheries Centre in Vancouver released the first global estimate of the value of the industry, set at 240 billion dollars, but warned that government subsidies encourage over-fishing that is destroying the resource.

Daniel Pauly: Soon there will be no fish. By Deborah Jones   Report

From his separation from his mother as a toddler in postwar France, to his deprived childhood as a live-in servant in Switzerland, to his recent winning of a prestigious Japanese award, Daniel Pauly’s life is like a Dickensian tale writ large. For years, the Vancouver-based marine biologist has worked on the devastation of the world’s oceans and their inhabitants, helping to bring the issue into the spotlight. His efforts were honoured this month in Osaka, Japan, where he was awarded that country’s Cosmos Prize, sometimes called the Nobel Prize for environmentalism.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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London’s Secretive Dark River

A dead bird lies next to a rose on the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

by Stefan Wermuth
May, 2017

London’s River Thames has been the lifeblood of the British capital since the city’s origins as a Roman garrison town around 2,000 years ago.

The artery through which the world’s trade passed at the height of the British Empire, its banks were lined with factories that drove the industrial revolution but left its waters biologically dead.

Now, with power stations transformed into galleries, the river is home to seals, the occasional porpoise and has become a much-loved open space.

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For Reuters photographer Stefan Wermuth most work days are spent a short stroll away from the Thames, covering the political machinations of parliament, the Bank of England or previewing a new exhibition at the Tate Modern gallery.

A ramble along the river is a chance to take a breather from the frenetic pace of news to shoot in a slower and more creative way.

Over three months, Wermuth walked along the banks of the Thames, photographing the river and the abandoned objects exposed by the receding tide.

They range from the mundane to the enigmatic: mud-encrusted traffic cones and swirling seaweed to the carcass of a pigeon lying next to a rose on the sand.

Copyright Reuters 2017

Traffic cones are seen on the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain January 19, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Light is reflected from a wet wall along the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain February 27, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

A water drop hangs on a stalactite along the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

A drawing of a face is seen on a wall along the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

A water drop lands in a puddle on the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain March 3, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Raindrops fall into the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain February 27, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Stalactites are seen along the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Sand is seen on the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Seaweed is seen on the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Rust is seen along the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Water trails are seen on the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Material is seen on the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain February 27, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Water runs out of a bridge pillar along the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

A wooden stick is seen on the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Stones are seen on the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Seaweed is seen on the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Bricks covered in mud are seen on the bank of the River Thames during low tide in London, Britain February 27, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Environmentally-sound agriculture can support farmers and consumers

Agroecology can help fix the food, water and energy challenges that conventional agriculture has created.

© Deborah Jones 2013

© Deborah Jones 2013

By Andrea Basche and Marcia DeLonge
March, 2017

The past several years have been rough for many U.S. farmers and ranchers. Net farm incomes this year could fall to 50 percent of 2013 levels in a fourth consecutive year of income declines that is leading some producers to seek alternatives. At the same time, rural and urban Americans share growing concerns related to agriculture: worries that water pollution will be increasingly costly and harmful, that water supplies are at risk from extreme swings in rainfall, and that global warming due to fossil fuel burning threatens our food system and will necessitate changes in how we farm.

What if all of these challenges could find a common solution? It might just be that they can. In a commentary published this week in the scientific journal Elementa, we contend that agroecology offers a promising approach to solving food system problems while mitigating, water and energy concerns — and propose a way to overcome the obstacles to fully embracing it.

U.S. agriculture has trended for several decades — as a result of policy, economics and other drivers — toward systems that are more simplified over both space and time. This has had adverse consequences for food, energy and water.

Agroecology takes a different approach, applying ecological concepts to create and maintain diverse, resilient food systems. Promising research demonstrates that bringing diversity back to farms can begin to reverse the problems simplification has created. For example, scientists have found that strategically incorporating perennial plants (including food, energy or non-crop plants) into small areas of commodity crops can significantly reduce water pollution and soil loss. Studies also show that using multiple crops rather than a monoculture is associated with improvements in the amount of carbon (important to help soils hold onto more water and mitigate climate change) and nitrogen (critical for plant growth and soil function) in the soil.

If better farming systems exist, why don’t more producers use them, and why aren’t they more encouraged? Among the reasons:

  • Government policies and economics influence many producer decisions that contribute to landscape simplification. For example, biofuel incentives greatly expanded markets for ethanol, leading farmers to replace grasslands with endless acres of monoculture corn rather than leaving them native or planting more diverse crops.
  • Research has also found that the need to focus on immediate cash flow rather than long-term benefits just to stay afloat can make it difficult to adopt more resilient systems
  • Agroecology research is woefully underfunded. This means that up-to-date examples of innovative practices suited to specific regions are not sufficiently available for many farmers.
  • Change is hard and it can take support for producers to get started. It is critical to find peers and peer networks to learn from — and these are rare.
  • Benefits are narrowly defined. When farmers, policy-makers, and scientists focus primarily on simple measures of progress like crop yields, we lose track of the many other benefits of agroecology — including those related to water and energy.

In spite of these and other obstacles, innovators have begun to demonstrate that diversified land management can be good business, from a cover crop seed company in rural Nebraska, to a food hub supporting local diversified food production in western Iowa, to a consulting group helping farmers optimize land management and costs with a “precision conservation” approach. The dire need for economic opportunity in rural America was a major discussion point in the 2016 election, and these examples suggest how a more diverse and sustainable agriculture can help meet that need.

A shift in perspective that recognizes relationships among food, water, and energy systems and new metrics that value co-benefits to water and energy could go a long way toward further advancing agroecology. In fact, recently published research refutes the idea that we must solely focus on doubling crop production to meet future demand. These researchers believe the actual future yield increases needed are smaller and that we must explicitly define environmental goals to match the production demands that always seem to dominate the narrative around food.

Fortunately, we know that solutions do exist, and with agroecological approaches we can solve these multiple challenges at the same time.

Creative Commons View Ensia homepage

Andrea Basche is a Kendall Science Fellow, Union of Concerned Scientists. Marcia DeLonge is an agroecologist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Elementa wordmarkThis article was orignally published by Ensia, in published in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Leveraging agroecology for solutions in food, energy and water,” a peer-reviewed article published March 2, 2017, as part of Elementa’s Food-Energy-Water Systems: Opportunities at the Nexus forum. —  March 3, 2017

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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The terrifying mathematics of the Anthropocene

By Owen Gaffney and Will Steffen,
February, 2017

Here are some surprising facts about humans’ effect on planet Earth. We have made enough concrete to create an exact replica of Earth 2mm thick. We have produced enough plastic to wrap Earth in clingfilm. We are creating “technofossils”, a new term for congealed human-made materials – plastics and concretes – that will be around for tens of millions of years.

But it is the scale that humans have altered Earth’s life support system that is the most concerning.

In 2000, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed that human impact on the atmosphere, the oceans, the land and ice sheets had reached such a scale that it had pushed Earth into a new epoch. They called it the Anthropocene and argued the current Holocene epoch was over.

The Holocene began 11,700 years ago as we emerged from a deep ice age. Over the past 10,000 years, the defining feature of the Holocene has been a remarkably stable Earth system. This stability has allowed us to develop agriculture and hence villages, towns and eventually cities – human civilisation.

We use pretty powerful rhetoric to describe the Anthropocene and current human impact. As The Economist stated in 2011, humanity has “become a force of nature reshaping the planet on a geological scale”. We are like an asteroid strike. We have the impact of an ice age.

But what does this really mean? Does it mean, for example, that we are having as big an impact as these natural forces are having right now, or is it, somehow, more profound?

Humans: the new asteroids.
Steve Jurvetson, CC BY

The maths of the Anthropocene

In our recent study, we wanted to find the simplest way to mathematically describe the Anthropocene and articulate the difference between how the planet once functioned and how it now functions.

Life on Earth, the chemical and physical composition of the atmosphere and oceans, and the size of the ice sheets have changed over time because of slight alterations to Earth’s orbit around the sun, changes to the sun’s energy output or major asteroid impacts like the one that killed the dinosaurs.

Cyanobacteria changed the world; now it’s our turn.
Matthew J Parker, CC BY-SA

They can also change due to geophysical forces: continents collide, cutting off ocean currents so heat is distributed in a new way, upsetting climate and biodiversity.

They also shift due to sheer internal dynamics of the system – new life evolves to drive great planetary shifts, such as the Great Oxidation Event around 2.5 billion years ago when newly evolved cyanobacteria began emitting the deadly poison oxygen that killed all simple life forms it came in touch with. Life had to evolve to tolerate oxygen.

Taking as our starting point a 1999 article by Earth system scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, we can say the rate of change of the Earth system (E) has been driven by three things: astronomical forcings such as those from the sun or asteroids; geophysical forcing, for example changing currents; and internal dynamics, such as the evolution of cyanobacteria. Let’s call them A, G and I.

Mathematically, we can put it like this:

It reads: the rate of change of the Earth system (dE/dt) is a function of astronomical and geophysical forcings and internal dynamics. It is a very simple statement about the main drivers of the system.

This equation has been true for four billion years, since the first life evolved. In his article, Schellnhuber argued that people must be added into this mix, but his theory came before the full impact of humanity had been assessed. In the past few decades, this equation has been radically altered.

We are losing biodiversity at rates tens to hundreds of times faster than natural rates. Indeed, we are approaching mass extinction rates. There have been five mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth. The last killed the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago, now humans are causing the sixth.

The rate we are emitting carbon dioxide might be at an all time high since that time too. Global temperatures are rising at a rate 170 times faster than the Holocene baseline. The global nitrogen cycle is undergoing its largest and most rapid change in possibly 2.5 billion years.

In fact, the rate of change of the Earth system under human influence in the past four decades is so significant we can now show that the equation has become:

H stands for humanity. In the Anthropocene Equation, the rate of change of the Earth system is a function of humanity.

A, G and I are now approaching zero relative to the other big force – us – they have become essentially negligible. We are now the dominant influence on the stability and resilience of the planet we call home.

This is worth a little reflection. For four billion years, the Earth system changed under the influence of tremendous solar-system wide forces of nature. Now this no longer holds.

IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland

A new reality

Heavenly bodies of course still exert some force; so does the ground beneath our feet. But the rates at which these forces operate are now negligible compared with the rate at which we are changing the Earth system. In the 1950s or 1960s, our own impact rivalled the great forces of nature. Now it usurps them entirely.

This should come as a shock not only to environmentalists but to everyone on Earth. But our conclusion is arguably a modest addition to the canon of academic literature. The scale and rate of change has already been well established by Earth system scientists over the past two decades.

Recently, Mark Williams and colleagues argued that the Anthropocene represents the third new era in Earth’s biosphere, and astrobiologist David Grinspoon argued that the Anthropocene marks one of the major events in a planet’s “life”, when self-aware cognitive processes become a key part of the way the planet functions.

Still, formalising the Anthropocene mathematically brings home an entirely new reality.

The drama is heightened when we consider that for much of Earth’s history the planet has been either very hot – a greenhouse world – or very cold – an icehouse world. These appear to be the deeply stable states lasting millions of years and resistant to even quite major shoves from astronomical or geophysical forces.

But the past 2.5 million years have been uncharacteristically unstable, periodically flickering from cold to a gentle warmth.

The consumption vortex

So, who do we mean when we talk of H? Some will argue that we cannot treat humanity as one homogenous whole. We agree.

While all of humanity is now in the Anthropocene, we are not all in it in the same way. Industrialised societies are the reason we have arrived at this place, not Inuits in northern Canada or smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Scientific and technological innovations and economic policies promoting growth at all costs have created a consumption and production vortex on a collision course with the Earth system.

Others may say that natural forces are too important to ignore; for example, the El Niño weather system periodically changes patterns globally and causes Earth to warm for a year or so, and the tides generate more energy than all of humanity. But a warm El Niño is balanced by a cool La Niña. The tides and other great forces of nature are powerful but stable. Overall, they do not affect the rate of change of the Earth system.

Now, only a truly catastrophic volcanic eruption or direct asteroid hit could match us for impact.

So, can the Anthropocene equation be solved? The current rate of change must return to around zero as soon as possible. It cannot continue indefinitely. Either humanity puts on the brakes or it would seem unlikely a global civilisation will continue to function on a destabilised planet. The choice is ours.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Owen Gaffney is an Anthropocene analyst and communicator, co-founder of theFuture Earth Media Lab, and Director of media at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University.  Will Steffen is Adjunct Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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China tackles air pollution

Smog is seen over the city during haze weather in Tianjin, China, January 3, 2017. Picture taken January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

Smog is seen over the city during haze weather in Tianjin, China, January 3, 2017. Picture taken January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

 

January 7, 2017

People wearing masks dance at a square among heavy smog during a polluted day in Fuyang, Anhui province, China, January 3, 2017. China Daily/via REUTERS

People wearing masks dance at a square among heavy smog during a polluted day in Fuyang, Anhui province, China, January 3, 2017. China Daily/via REUTERS

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China plans cuts in major sources of air pollution including sulphur dioxide and will promote more public transport in large cities, the government said, as the country’s north grapples with a lingering smog crisis.

The world’s second-largest economy will cut sulphur dioxide, a key contributor to air pollution produced by power plants and industry, by 15 percent by 2020, China’s State Council, the country’s cabinet, said in a five-year plan paper on January 5.

As well as capping industrial emissions, China would raise the share of public transport to 30 percent of total traffic in major cities by 2020 and promote cleaner, more efficient fuels, the new plan said.

China is in the third year of a “war on pollution” to tackle the legacy of more than three decades of untrammeled economic growth, but it has struggled to meet air quality standards or to prevent occurrences of the hazardous smog like the current episode.

An environment ministry spokesman said on Thursday that excessive resource use was “a bottleneck holding back China’s economic and social development”, and the situation remained grave.

RelatedHuman Rights: There’s an App for that, by Jonathan Manthorpe   Column

An air quality monitor atop the United States Embassy in China  confirmed for the Chinese people what they instinctively knew:  their government lies to them. It has instigated a middle class protest that has the ruling Communist Party scurrying to respond on air pollution.

Smog has lingered over large parts of northern China for most of the last two weeks, caused by increased coal use for winter heating as well as “unfavorable weather conditions,” even though overall concentrations of small, unhealthy airborne particles known as PM2.5 fell 6 percent during 2016, according to environment ministry data.

The paper says emissions will be controlled through stricter emissions caps on large industries, adjusting China’s industrial structure and widening the range of companies required to curb pollution. Vehicle emissions will also be curtailed through tighter fuel standards.

The new 2016-2020 “energy saving and emissions cutting” plan also made commitments to boost recycling and shut energy-guzzling firms that fail to meet efficiency standards. It also vowed to use “market mechanisms” to fight waste and pollution.

In a separate announcement on Friday, the ministry said power generators and paper mills in Beijing, Hebei and Tianjin would be part of a pilot “emissions permit” scheme to be set up in the region later this year.

The government said last November that the country would create a nationwide emissions permit system covering all major industrial sectors by 2020.

Eventually companies will have to buy permits to cover their excess emissions. China wants highly polluting sectors like thermal power and papermaking, as well as sectors suffering from overcapacity, to be covered by the end of 2017.

Copyright Reuters 2017

(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Necropolitics in Mexico and Central America

By Ariadna Estévez
December, 2016

Despite the presence of armed forces in the street, the most violent neighbourhoods of Honduras are plagued by insecurity. Children can rarely go out and play, even during daytime. Families’ movements are restricted by gangs, who impose “invisible borders” between their gang territories. European Commission photo, by A. Aragón 2016/Flickr

Despite the presence of armed forces in the street, the most violent neighbourhoods of Honduras are plagued by insecurity. Children can rarely go out and play, even during daytime. Families’ movements are restricted by gangs, who impose “invisible borders” between their gang territories. European Commission photo, by A. Aragón 2016/Flickr

Gang violence is forcing people to flee Central America and Mexico, heading north to the United States in record numbers. Right?

That’s the standard narrative: organised crime and drug trafficking have given Central America’s “Northern Triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) the highest homicide rates on earth, sending scared citizens packing.

Indeed, Honduras ranks second, behind Syria, among the world’s most dangerous countries, followed by El Salvador (6th), Guatemala (11th) and Mexico (23rd). And San Pedro Sula, in Honduras, has the highest homicide rate on the planet.

This is a humanitarian crisis and regional tragedy. And as far as the United Nations and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, are concerned, bad guys are to blame.

But this common received wisdom about violence in Central America and Mexico overlooks two facts.

Both areas are rich in natural resources, including fine woods (such as mahogany) and metals (such as iron, lead, gold, nickel, zinc and silver). And not all the violence plaguing the region is gang-related; it also encompassses feminicide, the killing of environmental activists and political murders and forced disappearances.

My argument is that criminal violence, while potent, is just part of a dangerous cocktail that serves to “cleanse” places where local communities are defending their home territory.

Necropolitics: a killer agenda

This isn’t a conspiracy theory, and this hypothesis is not mine alone. Data indicates that in resource-rich countries, the concurrence of forced displacement with criminal, misogynistic and political violence cannot be a coincidence.

This killer combination reflects a policy of forced depopulation aimed at obtaining “conflict-free” exploitation of natural resources that are increasingly valuable in the modern global economy, such as minerals used by new technologies and renewable or clean energy sources.

To execute this strategy, a variety of armed actors, including drug traffickers and gang members but also mercenary killers, security guards and “sicarios” – in Mexico and Central America are selling their killing expertise to powerful entities, from repressive governments to transnational corporations (or both, working together). Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe has called this phenomenon Private Indirect Government.

This “necropolitics” – the politics of death – is the violent core of what scholar Bobby Banerjee defines as necrocapitalism, that is, profit-driven deaths.

Why negotiate with poor indigenous communities sitting atop valuable oil, water, wood and ore if they can be pushed off their land with hidden criminal, political and misogynistic forces?

Central America’s resource curse

Nearly every Latin American country confronting high homicide levels also has precious woods, metals and hydrocarbons. For the purposes of my argument, let’s look at illegal and legal logging in Honduras, mining across Central America and hydrocarbon extraction along the US-Mexico border. These situations demonstrate how forced displacement, political repression, criminal and gender violence in resource-rich territories coincide.

In Honduras, displacement patterns indicate that criminal violence may not the main push factor. According to a 2016 report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the number of displaced persons increased nearly 600% from 29,000 to 174,000 between 2014 and 2015.

Oddly, that’s precisely when homicide rates decreased. The report is vague on this paradox, suggesting that the increase may relate to worsening economic conditions.

I would counter that the increasingly violent repression of environmental activism, not criminal violence, was the primary displacing force during that period.

From 2010 to 2014, more than 100 Honduran environmental activists were killed. By 2014, the country was seeing massive demonstrations against corporate activity in Río Blanco – the same river defended by environmentalist Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in 2016.

Honduras is rich in natural resources, with 41.5% of its territory covered with forests. Yet it is the third-poorest country in the Americas. Conditions there have worsened there since a 2009 coup d’etat.

The poorest Hondurans live in rural areas, where longstanding agricultural, logging and livestock activities have created an environmental crisis. Widespread deforestation, erosion and environmental degradation are exposing communities to natural disaster. That’s why farmers and indigenous groups are increasingly organising against corporate interests in their jungles, and why they’re being killed and displaced.

While much of Honduras’s criminal violence takes place in cities such as San Pedro Sula, it is also concentrated in supposedly protected rural areas that have illegal mining and logging activities.

The Río Plátano biosphere, one of the country’s three major protected areas, and the La Ceiba district, near the Pico Bonito conservation zone, both have gang and cartel activities, and are among the areas sending the greatest number of child refugees to the US.

The government is a partner in this illicit extraction. According to a Global Witness report, from 2006 to 2007, the Honduran state paid more than US$1 million to timber traffickers.

Women, the environment and murder

It’s a common mistake to consider violence against women a private, non-political act. But women are often on the front lines of environmental activism because they tend to oppose activities that are harmful to their children, homes and communities. While there’s no data on the exact number killed, the necropolitical dangers women face is sufficient to merit a network of female environmentalists.

In 2015, Honduras had the world’s highest feminicide rate. The most famous case is that of 44-year-old Honduran indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, who was killed in March 2016.

In her final days, Cáceres received texts and calls warning her to give up her fight against the Agua Zarca dam and had recently had an altercation with employees of a Honduran energy company, Desarrollos Energéticos S.A., or Desa. She was eventually shot dead in her home.

Feminicide has similarly flourished in Mexico’s most shale-rich states. There, the case of Josefina Reyes Salazar is iconic, though still shrouded in mystery.

A women’s rights and environmental activist in Valle de Juárez, Salazar was killed in 2010 along with other members of her family, because they opposed the militarisation of their town, which was located in an area rich in shale gas.

The Mexican case

According to a forced displacement report, of the 287,000 Mexicans displaced by violence and 91,000 displaced by disaster, most are in the states of Chihuahua, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa, Durango, Michoacán, Guerrero and Veracruz.

Beyond their high levels of drug-related violence, all of these states are also rich in minerals, renewables and shale gas. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll focus here on shale gas extraction along the US-Mexico border.

A significant number of the forced disappearances and murders in which the army and criminal gangs are involved have taken place in this swath of land, located above a major Texas shale gas source known as Eagle Ford Shale Basin.

This area is also, notoriously, run by gangs, from the Juarez Cartel that once made Ciudad Juarez the world’s most violent city to the Zetas, who are responsible for thousands of Mexico’s 300,000 forced disappearances, and the Gulf Cartel, whose leaders were protected by local politicians.

Fracking, the method used to extract shale gas, has significant environmental costs, requires 7.6 to 15 million litres of water per extraction and contains contaminating chemicals.

27,000 wells fuel Eagle Ford’s shale gas exploitation. In an arid place where water is already scarce, this intense water use is hurting agriculture and leading to increasing protests.

According to a special report by the National Human Rights Commission, most of Mexico’s displaced people are farmers from communities with self-sustaining economies, environmental and human rights activists, small business owners, local government officials, and journalists.

This makes sense. With the exception perhaps of business owners, these populations represent a specific threat to extractive capitalist interests, either through resistance (activists, law-abiding public officials, farmers) or exposure (journalists).

Thus, while gangs and drug-related violence are major Latin American social problems, civil society must start discerning the entire array of depopulating strategies in Central America and Mexico.

Mexico’s national media is already drawing this link with shale gas extraction. It’s time to complicate the narrative of violence across Mexico and the Northern Triangle by examining the role of transnational corporations, local political elites, and economic oligarchies in the region’s daily displacement and production of death.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Ariadna Estévez 3 Articles 0 Comments Professor, Center for Research on North America, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) ProfileArticlesAriadna Estévez  received her doctorate in human rights from Sussex University in Brighton, UK; her master’s in political sociology from the City University in London, England; and her bachelor’s in journalism and collective communications from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She is currently a full-time researcher at the Center for Research on North America (CISAN-UNAM).

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

 

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In Quito, the world tackles the future of cities

By Barbara Norman and John Colin Reid 
October 22, 2016

Quito's old town. Photo Deborah Jones © 2013

Quito’s old town. Photo Deborah Jones © 2013

As the global population grows from seven to nearly ten billion by 2050, we will need to build the equivalent of a city of one million people every five days to house them.

The world already has ten cities with more than 20 million inhabitants, including Tokyo (37 million), Beijing (21 million), Jakarta (30 million) and New Delhi (25 million). Out of the seven billion people in the world, 6.7 billion live with pollution above WHO clean air standards.

By 2050, around 12 million people from 23 cities in East Asia alone will be at risk from coastal inundation. Planning for climate change will be critical to minimise risk to these areas.

These are just some of the stark facts about our global urban future. With these issues in mind, up to 50,000 participants gathered in Quito this week to discuss a New Urban Agenda at Habitat III – the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development.

The adoption of the agenda will set standards for sustainable development with a strong emphasis on social inclusion, cultural diversity, urban prosperity, urban governance, urban spatial development, and integrated urban planning including climate change.

From Paris to Quito

The Paris agreement on climate change will come into effect in November 2016. Cities will be at the heart of achieving its aim to limit global warming to less than 2°C. Planning for a low-carbon and resilient urban future is now our greatest global challenge. It is critical to achieving emission reduction targets and planning cities for climate change.

After all, cities produce 76% of carbon dioxide emissions and account for 75% of energy use worldwide. The focus is now on implementing the Paris agreement; that is where the New Urban Agenda, proposed for agreement at UN Habitat III, comes into play.

Key issues being discussed include affordable housing, urban transport, gender equity, empowerment of women and girls, poverty, and hunger in all its forms. Involving communities in the future and design of cities is essential. Better urban governance of our growing cities and urban regions is a core theme.

Observing the range of activities here at Habitat III, it is impressive to see the significant engagement of the private sector as well as governments and NGOs. This mix of partnerships is vital if we are to make positive change in the planning of our cities.

Global companies are present as well as local consultancies. They can clearly see there is a market for them in more sustainable futures. This brings great hope for the future.

The scientists are less happy, and are seeking greater engagement in future discussions. In the latest issue of Nature, the commentary says “Scientists must have a say in the future of cities” and argues that they should have been more involved in the Habitat III processes.

Clearly, better connecting scientists with planners with communities is important in finding sustainable solutions. A key component in improving city planning is sharing knowledge and expertise.

Cities are often connected through global urban networks such as C40, a network of megacities advocating for action on climate change, and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

Another important strategy being presented is improving the sharing of knowledge and expertise between “like climate regions”. It is equally important to improve communication of the major urban challenges with wider audiences.

Researchers with the United Nations University developed an art strategy as part of the preparatory process for Habitat III, with the intention of stimulating thought and discussion on health and well-being in cities. The overall message from UN Habitat III is that the sustainable planning and design of our cities and human settlements is fundamental to improving the health and well being of our urban communities and acting on climate change. Through that, we tackle the stark facts of urban pollution, our response to climate change, and the future liveability of our cities.

Our moment to act

We are living in a unique time for cities, with multiple UN agendas coming together at once: the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris climate agreement, Sendai Framework for Risk Reduction and the Small Island Developing States Partnerships Framework. National urban policies are seen as crucial to implementation of all these agreements. As the New Urban Agenda states:

the persistence of multiple forms of poverty, growing inequalities, and environmental degradation remain among the major obstacles to sustainable development worldwide.

Through better urban governance, we can make significant inroads to address the ongoing barriers to achieving more sustainable cities. The proposed agenda particularly highlights transportation and mobility as a priority to support action. Habitat III offers an opportunity to raise global understanding of the enormous challenges facing cities, and a platform for nations to collaborate in developing more sustainable urban futures. This will require considerable effort from everyone.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Barbara Norman is Chair of Urban & Regional Planning & Director of Canberra Urban & Regional Futures, at University of Canberra.  John Colin Reid is a Visual artist at Australian National University This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related on F&O:

Nations Adopt Plan for Breakneck Urbanization, by Paola Totaro

The United Nations formally adopted a global road map to grapple with rapid urbanization, capping nearly two years of behind-the-scenes international negotiations aimed at designing development priorities for cities and towns.

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East Africans thwart illegal fishing

Greko 1. Photo supplied by FISH-i Africa

Greko 1. Photo supplied by FISH-i Africa

Early in December 2012, a South Korean vessel called the Premier entered the Indian Ocean to fish. In West Africa, authorities knew that the boat had been fishing illegally in Liberian waters before it made its way to Africa’s other coast. That raised the ire of East African countries, which weren’t keen to welcome a lawbreaker into their seas. Kenya, Tanzania, Mauritius, the Comoros, Mozambique, and the Seychelles rapidly mobilized against the vessel, shutting it out of their ports and refusing to grant it a fishing license.

“All of a sudden, the Premier was surrounded by countries that were saying no to everything,” recalls Benedict Kiilu, a Kenyan principal fisheries officer who was part of the team that tracked the vessel at the time. In 2013, unable to land its catch, the disgraced ship was finally driven out of the region. Ultimately, it was forced to pay US$2 million to Liberia for plundering its fish.

The beating heart of this crime-busting, resource-conserving effort was FISH-i Africa, a network of countries committed to sharing fisheries intelligence that was established in 2012 by the not-for-profit Stop Illegal Fishing. Composed of the six countries that drove out the Premier, along with Madagascar and Somalia, FISH-i Africa seeks to form a united front against illegal — or “pirate” — fishing.

“It’s eight like-minded countries working together to share information and stand shoulder to shoulder where illegal fishing is concerned,” says Tony Long, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Ending Illegal Fishing Project, which provides technical support to aid FISH-i’s efforts.

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Because illegal fishing is unregulated — meaning catch is concealed and almost impossible to trace — it has become a major driver of overfishing. By flouting the rules designed to protect certain habitats and species, it can also undermine vulnerable ecosystems and threaten marine species. But, where attempts to fight it were once hampered by bureaucracy and snail’s-pace information sharing between countries, now they’re happening in real-time on FISH-i’s digital communications platform. Here, member countries exchange vessel license lists, news about suspect activities and details obtained during port inspections to build up a record of the vessels entering their waters.

FISH-i also closely tracks vessels’ activities on the high seas using satellite data and shares that information via the platform. This helps authorities flag vessels that may be fishing in off-limits areas, or those that betray unusual travel patterns that suggest they’re transferring fish illegally between boats.

Ideally, these investigations can reveal whether vessels have appropriate licenses, where they’ve been fishing and perhaps if they have a criminal record. Countries that wise up to illegal fishers’ transgressions then have grounds to shut their ports to these vessels so they can’t sell their catch or even to force them to pay fines, as in the case of the Premier.

“It’s a real financial loss to the [vessel’s] owner, which means illegal fishing isn’t profitable anymore. That’s really what we want to achieve,” says Per Erik Bergh, managing director of NFDS Africa, a consultancy that works to combat illegal fishing in Africa and provides support to FISH-i.

United Front

Illegal trawl nets were found aboard Greko 1. Photo supplied by FISH-i Africa

Illegal trawl nets were found aboard Greko 1. Photo supplied by FISH-i Africa

The platform was created to reclaim the estimated US$200 million in revenue that the eight FISH-i countries lose annually to illegal fishers invading East African waters. Home to the world’s second-most productive tuna fishery, this region attracts commercial fishing vessels from around the world, including illegal fishers — whose activities range from using false flags, fake licenses and fictitious names to fishing prohibited species and fishing in protected waters.

“In the past a vessel might be fishing illegally, and one country might say, ‘You can’t come to my port,’ whereas the next country would say, ‘Come to mine.’” – Tony LongThey’ll exploit the lack of international collaboration and take advantage of a patchy system,” says Long. “In the past a vessel might be fishing illegally, and one country might say, ‘You can’t come to my port,’ whereas the next country would say, ‘Come to mine.’” This loophole is exactly what FISH-i is now trying to close.

So far, the united front is working. Since it was founded, FISH-i has been involved in more than 30 investigations of suspect ships. It has identified criminal networks distributing fake fishing licenses in Tanzania, exposed vessels using multiple fraudulent identities and tracked down fugitive ships. Its relationship with INTERPOL, the international crime investigation agency, also enables FISH-i to widely share and receive information about pirate fishing.

“Some of the investigations we are doing are going into quite substantial organized crime networks,” says Bergh.

FISH-i’s evolving satellite detection system is also helping it get around the hurdle of illegal vessels that try to avoid discovery.

“There are very sophisticated structures illegal fishers are using to hide their operations and their locations, which is what we’re trying to deconstruct,” says Duncan Copeland, chief analyst of Trygg Mat Tracking, a not-for-profit fisheries intelligence resource that provides technical support to FISH-i. Some ships turn off their automatic identification systems, for instance, which makes them impervious to satellite tracking. Copeland is helping to build a system that combines multiple layers of information to help FISH-i pinpoint criminal ships with greater precision.

Model Program

But can FISH-i’s team of African nations have an impact on the decidedly global problem of illegal fishing? John Amos, president of the nonprofit SkyTruth, thinks so. Recently SkyTruth, Google and the marine advocacy group Oceana launched Global Fishing Watch, an open-access satellite platform that reveals the location of any trackable ship in the world.

In addition to earmarking criminals, there’s evidence that FISH-i’s activities deter crime, too. Its huge global scope has attracted widespread attention — but Amos also sees the benefit of regional efforts like FISH-i’s that home in on local waters.

“Teaming up with your neighbors to get a better operating picture of who’s doing what, where, just makes sense,” he says. “This is an opportunity for countries to get together and pool their intelligence resources, and we should be doing that at a global scale.”

In addition to earmarking criminals, there’s evidence that FISH-i’s activities deter crime, too. Whereas vessels used to fish without a license and face few consequences, now they know they’re being watched. According to Kiilu, some FISH-i countries have seen a 33 percent rise in fishing revenue as vessels purchase more licenses.

Other countries are taking note of this success. “The impact is so great that other parts of Africa are copying what we do,” says Kiilu. “We’re a specimen for study.” In West Africa, where illegal fishing usurps several hundred million dollars a year, the West Africa Task Force was formed in 2015 by six nations to combat illegal fishing — and it’s based entirely on FISH-i’s model. “There is certainly the goal to eventually see more of these task force type structures set up in other regions,” Copeland says.

Recently, FISH-i’s newest member, Somalia, had its first major triumph when in October it cornered the Greko 1 — a fake-flagged vessel that not only was fishing without a license using banned trawl nets, but also had invaded an off-limits area reserved for Somali fishers. “By taking action against the Greko 1, [Somalis] are sending a strong signal that they will act against illegal fishing,” says Bergh.

For FISH-i, it’s yet another sign of its success — proof that its unique, collaborative approach really works to protect the ocean’s natural resources across its range.


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This article first appeared on Ensia, and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence. View Ensia homepage


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F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Nature needs a seat at the UN

By Anthony Burke and Stefanie Fishel 
October, 2016

Street art in Sydney, Australia. Photo by Stefanie Fishel

Street art in Sydney, Australia. Photo by Stefanie Fishel

Whether we consider wild weather, unprecedented Arctic melting and global temperatures, or the Great Barrier Reef, the global environment is generating alarming news. Predictions of multi-metre sea level rises, the collapse of marine biodiversity and food chains, and global warming far beyond 2℃ are equally concerning. Is our system of global environmental law and governance adequate to this crisis?

Our short answer is “no”, but what should be done? We believe new international institutions and laws are needed, with one fundamental purpose: to give a voice to ecosystems and non-human forms of life.

We say this knowing that the current global system is inadequate to respond to many human crises, but with the conviction that environmental justice often overlaps with social justice.

It is tempting to believe that we can muddle through with the existing system, centred on the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change and Convention on Biological Diversity. But these are not integrated with each other, and are also kept separate from global economic and trade institutions like the World Trade Organisation, the G20 and the World Bank, and from global security institutions like the UN Security Council. The latter has never passed a resolution about the environment, despite growing warnings from military strategists of the potential for climate-catalysed conflict.

Global trade and security are each governed by global agencies. But there is no comparable global authority to protect the environment.

The climate agreement negotiated at last year’s Paris summit was a great diplomatic achievement, but the euphoria was premature. Current national pledges to cut emissions will fail to keep global warming below 2℃, let alone the 1.5℃ that climate scientists and many nations in Paris have argued is the safer limit.

The Paris deal’s predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, actually saw global emissions rise by 60% to 2014.

Three months before Paris, the UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals and its mission to “heal and secure our planet”. The gap between ambition and ability could scarcely be greater.

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A new manifesto

We and our colleagues have published a “Planet Politics” manifesto, which argues that the current architecture of international society is failing to see and address the global ecological crisis. Our global governance is too focused on interstate bargaining and human interests, and sees the environment as an inert backdrop and resource for human societies. Yet the reality is that the fates of society and nature are inextricably bound together – and the planet is letting us know that.

In response, we propose three key international reforms: a coal convention, an Earth system council, and a new category of “crimes against biodiversity”.

A coal convention

Every year toxic air pollution from coal burning causes death and disease. Coal is responsible for 43% of global greenhouse emissions and 80% of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration since 1870.

We already have UN treaties banning the use of chemical and biological weapons, on the basis of their threats to human health and security. Based on the same principles, we suggest a similar international convention to outlaw the mining and burning of coal.

This would create a common legal framework in which states can transform their energy economies without fear of “free riders”. It would also add to the pressure already being felt by the coal and energy industries to curb their damaging pollution.

An Earth system council

An Earth system council would function much like the UN Security Council – it would, in effect, be an “ecological security council”.

Its mandate would be to preserve, protect and repair global ecosystems. It would respond to immediate crises while also stimulating action on systemic environmental degradation and ecosystem repair. Its resolutions would be binding on all UN member states, although we do not envisage that it would have the same coercive powers (such as sanctions). The council would be able to refer issues to the International Court of Justice, or create ad hoc international criminal tribunals relating to major environmental crimes.

This is significant reform that would require the revision of the UN Charter, but our proposals for membership go even further. Every meeting would be briefed by the head of the UN Environment Program and by Earth system scientists or ecologists.

We suggest it could have 25 voting seats, 13 of which would go to state representatives elected for fixed terms, allocated among the major world regions. The other 12 would be permanent seats held by “eco-regions”: major ecosystems that bind together large human and non-human communities and are crucial to the planetary biosphere, such as the Arctic and Antarctic, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Amazon Basin, tropical Africa, or major river systems like the Mekong and Congo. Alternatively, following WWF’s Global 200, eco-regions could be based on major habitat types.

Each eco-region would be represented by a democratic assembly and have a constitution focused solely on the preservation and repair of its ecology. It would appoint a representative to the Earth system council and have the power to make recommendations for ecosystem protection to regional governments. Each state with territory that overlaps that eco-region would have one seat. Other seats would be elected democratically from communities (especially indigenous peoples) within those regions.

Crimes against biodiversity

A “crimes against biodiversity” law would act like a Rome Statute for the environment. It could add much-needed teeth to efforts to preserve global biodiversity and prevent large-scale environmental harms. Ecological damage should be criminalised, not just penalised with fines or lawsuits.

We envisage that this law would outlaw and punish three kinds of activity:

  • actions that contribute to the extinction of endangered species, such as poaching, illegal whaling or destruction of habitat;
  • actions that involve the unnecessary large-scale killing or death of species groups, as happened in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster;
  • activities that destroy ecosystems, such as the dumping of mine tailings or toxic waste into rivers.

It would not criminalise the farming of animals or the catching of fish, but could apply if these practices involve the mistreatment of animals or large-scale collateral damage to biodiversity – for instance, by overly extractive fishing methods. Such global-level regulation will augment enforcement at local levels.

Unlike international laws that punish genocide, our suggested law would not require proof of intent to commit the crime, but merely a strong link between the activity and the destruction of biodiversity or industrial and systemic harm to animals. There are potential legal precedents in the US legal doctrine of “depraved heart murder” in which individuals are liable for deaths caused by wilful indifference, rather than an express desire to harm.

It is easy to see how this kind of legal reasoning could be used to help deter dangerous industrial, mining or agricultural activities.

Readers might ask how the destruction of biodiversity is as morally appalling as genocide or other crimes against humanity. The philosopher Hannah Arendt has argued that the distinct evil of crimes against humanity lies not simply in mass murder but in the destruction of human diversity; an attack on humanity’s peaceful coexistence on our planet.

Now, as we become ever more aware of the complex enmeshment of human and non-human life in the planetary biosphere, the human-caused extinction of species is likewise an attack on our common ecological existence. It is time for this truth to be recognised in international law.

We are aware that these are radical ideas that raise significant political and legal complexities, but the time to start debating them is now. Planet Earth needs unprecedented politics for these unprecedented times.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Anthony Burke is an Associate Professor of International & Political Studies, UNSW Australia.  Stefanie Fishel is an Assistant Professor, University of Alabama This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Hunting, fishing, farming biggest threats to wildlife

Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, Colorado. Photo by Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons

Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, Colorado. Photo by Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons

By Sean Maxwell, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland 
August 13, 2016

History might judge the Paris climate agreement to be a watershed for all humanity. If nations succeed in halting runaway climate change, this will have enormous positive implications for life on Earth.

Yet as the world applauds a momentous shift toward carbon neutrality and hope for species threatened by climate change, we can’t ignore the even bigger threats to the world’s wildlife and ecosystems.

Climate change threatens 19% of globally threatened and near-threatened species – including Australia’s critically endangered mountain pygmy possum and the southern corroboree frog. It’s a serious conservation issue.

Yet our new study, published in Nature, shows that by far the largest current hazards to biodiversity are overexploitation and agriculture.

The biggest threats to the world’s wildlife
Sean Maxwell et al.

The cost of overexploitation and agriculture

We assessed nearly 9,000 species listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. We found that 72% are threatened by overexploitation and 62% by agriculture.

Overexploitation (the unsustainable harvest of species from the wild) is putting more species on an extinction pathway than any other threat.

And the expansion and intensification of agriculture (the production of food, fodder, fibre and fuel crops; livestock; aquaculture; and the cultivation of trees) is the second-largest driver of biodiversity loss.

Hunting and gathering is a threat to more than 1,600 species, including many large carnivores such as tigers and snow leopards.

Unsustainable logging is driving the decline of more than 4,000 species, such as Australia’s Leadbeater’s possum, while more than 1,000 species, including southern bluefin tuna, are losing out to excessive fishing pressure.

Land change for crop farming and timber plantations imperils more than 5,300 species, such as the far eastern curlew, while the northern hairy-nosed wombat is one of more than 2,400 species affected by livestock farming and aquaculture.

The threat information used to inform our study is the most comprehensive available. But it doesn’t tell the complete story.

Threats are likely to change in the future. Climate change, for example, will become increasingly problematic for many species in coming decades.

Moreover, threats to biodiversity rarely operate in isolation. More than 80% of the species we assessed are facing more than one major threat.

Through threat interactions, smaller threats can indirectly drive extinction risk. Roads and energy production, for example, are known to facilitate the emergence of overexploitation, land modification and habitat loss.

But until we have a better understanding of how threats interact, a pragmatic course of action is to limit those impacts that are currently harming the most species.

By ensuring that major threats that occur today (overexploitation, agriculture and so on) do not compromise ecosystems tomorrow, we can help to ameliorate the challenges presented by impending climate change.

Getting it right

Overexploitation and agriculture demand a variety of conservation approaches. Traditional approaches, such as well-placed protected areas and the enforcement of hunting, logging and fishing regulations, remain the strongest defence against the ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers.

Achieving a truly effective protected area network is impossible, however, when governments insist on relegating protected areas to “residual” places – those with least promise for commercial uses.

Reducing impacts from overexploitation of forests and fish is also futile unless industries that employ clearfell logging and illegal fishing vessels transition to more environmentally sustainable practices.

Just as critical as traditional approaches are incentives for hunters, fishers and farmers to conserve threatened species outside designated conservation areas.

Australia’s Leadbeater’s possum remains threatened by logging.
Greens MPs/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

For nations like Australia, our study shows there is a growing mismatch in environmental policy and the outcomes for biodiversity. Environmental programs such as the once well-funded National Reserve System Strategy and Biodiversity Fund were important in that they helped conserve wildlife on private and public land, and were fundamental to defeating the biggest, prevailing threats to Australia’s biodiversity. But these programs either do not exist anymore or have little funding to support them at state and federal levels.

On top of this, land-clearing – without doubt one of the largest threats to biodiversity across the country – is on the increase because laws have been repealed across the country. Any benefits accrued by previous good environmental programs are being eroded.

If we are to seriously tackle the largest threats to biodiversity in Australia, we need to recognise the biggest threats. This means efforts to reduce threats from agriculture and overexploitation of forests and fish must include durable environmental regulation.

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This article was co-authored by Thomas Brooks, head of science and knowledge at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Sean Maxwell is a PhD candidate, The University of Queensland; James Watson is Associate professor, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller is Associate professor, The University of Queensland. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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