The Weekly Roundup – Feb 15, 2019

World / Climate Change

1/ The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review. More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The researchers set out their conclusions in unusually forceful terms for a peer-reviewed scientific paper. “Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades. The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.” Intensive agriculture is the main driver of the declines, particularly the heavy use of pesticides. Urbanisation and climate change are also significant factors. One of the biggest impacts of insect loss is on the many birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish that eat insects. If this food source is taken away, all these animals starve to death. (The Guardian / The Independent / Vox

2/ Humans are in the process of herding the world’s largest animals right over the brink of extinction, and the main driving force is our insatiable appetite for meat.  All told, at least 200 megafauna species are dwindling in number, and more than 150 are being pushed under the shadow of extinction. Today, every single class of megafauna is most at risk from human hunting. In fact, of all the threatened megafauna species, 98 percent were at risk from “direct harvesting for human consumption of meat or body parts.” (Conservation Letters)

3/ Following rats and cats, dogs are now the third worst human-introduced predator in some parts of the world. There are an estimated 1 billion dogs living around the globe, and they are now believed to threaten almost 200 species worldwide, including some critically endangered animals, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). As well as being a direct threat to animals by hunting them, dogs are also carriers of disease, can have significant impacts on fragile ecosystems, can compete with other vulnerable animals for prey, and in the case of wolves, can interbreed with them, threatening the longevity and integrity of the wolf population. (Independent)

4/ The world is not on track to meet the greenhouse gas “turning point” required to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, experts have warned. Climate analysts have previously identified 2020 as the year when emissions need to start falling to achieve this target (Mission2020 coalition). Six key areas that need to be revolutionised to achieve the ambitious target of a 2020 turning point. These sectors were energy, transport, land use, industry, infrastructure and finance. One target was for a fifth of new car sales being electric by 2020, and while there has been some progress towards this goal it is still expected to fall far short at around 3 per cent. There has also been a failure to ramp up agricultural practices that both reduce CO2 emissions and increase the quantity of CO2 being sucked from the atmosphere by farmland. The authors warned that all coal-fired power plants must be retired, and the enormous scale of deforestation that is removing some of the planet’s biggest carbon sinks must come to an end. (Independent / UN)

5/ The think-tank IPPR says human impacts have reached a critical stage and threaten to destabilise society and the global economy. Scientists warn of a potentially deadly combination of factors. These include climate change, mass loss of species, topsoil erosion, forest felling and acidifying oceans. Evidence on the deterioration of natural systems is presented with a series of grim global statistics: since 1950, the number of floods has increased by a factor of 15, extreme temperature events by a factor of 20, and wildfires sevenfold; topsoil is now being lost 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished by natural processes; the 20 warmest years since records began in 1850 have been in the past 22 years; vertebrate populations have fallen by an average of 60% since the 1970s, and insect numbers– vital for pollination – have declined even faster in some countries. (BBC / Independent / The Guardian

6/ Norway approves copper mine in Arctic described as ‘most environmentally damaging project in country’s history’ despite years of opposition from indigenous Sami herders and fishermen. Up to 66 million tons of copper ore are believed to be in ground in Kvalsund in Finnmark– Europe’s northernmost region deep inside the Arctic Circle. Melting sea ice has allowed heavily polluting ships to enter pristine habitats and nations are eyeing up its precious natural resources. Activists said two million tonnes of heavy metal waste will be dumped every year – the equivalent of 17 lorry loads every hour – into a fjord given special protection to conserve salmon. Earlier mine waste dumping in the same fjord, at a lower level than planned in the project approved today, led to a large drop in the salmon populations that took 13 years to recover. Cod populations have still not returned to their former spawning grounds. Norway is the only country in Europe – and one of only five in the world – that allows mining companies to dump solid mine waste directly into the sea. (Independent)

7/ Dramatic rises in atmospheric methane are threatening to derail plans to hold global temperature rises to 2C, scientists have warned. In a paper published this month by the American Geophysical Union, researchers say sharp rises in levels of methane – which is a powerful greenhouse gas – have strengthened over the past four years. Methane is produced by cattle, and also comes from decaying vegetation, fires, coal mines and natural gas plants. It is many times more potent as a cause of atmospheric warming than carbon dioxide (CO2). However, it breaks down much more quickly than COand is found at much lower levels in the atmosphere. Studies suggest these increases are more likely to be mainly biological in origin. However, the exact cause remains unclear. Some researchers believe the spread of intense farming in Africa may be involved, in particular in tropical regions where conditions are becoming warmer and wetter because of climate change. “Perhaps emissions are growing or perhaps the problem is due to the fact that our atmosphere is losing its ability to break down methane. Either way we are facing a very worrying problem.” (The Guardian)

The good news…

World / Climate Change

9/ Lawmakers in Honolulu advanced a proposed ban on killing sharks in state waters on Wednesday, after receiving hundreds of calls and letters of support from around the country. The law, which would provide sweeping protection for any shark, rather than select species, could be the first of its kind in the United States. Along with killing the animals, capturing or harming them would also incur fines and count as a misdemeanor offense. (The Guardian

10/ Thousands of schoolchildren and young people walked out of classes to join a UK-wide climate strike amid growing anger at the failure of politicians to tackle the escalating ecological crisis. Organizers said more than 10,000 young people in at least 60 towns and cities defied threats of detention to voice their frustration at the older generation’s inaction on the environmental impact of climate change. The school strike movement started in August when Greta Thunberg, then 15, held a solo protest outside the Swedish parliament. Now, up to 70,000 schoolchildren each week hold protests in 270 towns and cities worldwide. (The Guardian)

11/ An offshore windfarm on the Yorkshire coast that will dwarf the world’s largest when completed is to supply its first power to the UK electricity grid this week. The size of the project takes the burgeoning offshore wind power sector to a new scale, on a par with conventional fossil fuel-fired power stations. At 1.2GW of capacity it will power 1m homes, making it about twice as powerful as today’s biggest offshore windfarm once it is completed in the second half of this year. The UK and Germany installed 85% of new offshore wind power capacity in the EU last year, according to industry data. The turbines for Hornsea One are built and shipped from Siemens Gamesa’s factory in Hull, part of a web of UK-based suppliers that has sprung up around the growing sector. (The Guardian)

12/ In the States, the Senate on Tuesday passed a sweeping public lands conservation bill, designating more than one million acres of wilderness for environmental protection and permanently reauthorizing a federal program to pay for conservation measures. The Senate voted 92 to 8 in favor of the bill, a rare moment of bipartisanship at a time when the Trump administration is working aggressively to strip away protections on public lands and open them to mining and drilling. The bill designates 1.3 million acres in Utah, New Mexico, Oregon and California as “wilderness,” the most stringent level of federal land protection. And the bill creates less-stringent but permanent protections of land in Montana and Washington state. It includes three new national monuments to be administered by the National Park Service. (NYT)

13/ Half good, half bad. There are now more than 2 million sq miles of extra leaf area per year, compared with the early 2000s – a 5% increase. The greening effect stems mainly from ambitious tree-planting in China and intensive farming in India and China. Extra foliage helps slows climate change, but researchers warn this will be offset by rising temperatures.   The future of the greening trend may change depending on numerous factors. For example, India may run short of groundwater irrigation. On the global picture, scientists recently warned that CO2 in the atmosphere could reach record levels this year as a result of heating in the tropical Pacific which is likely to reduce CO2 uptake in plants. (BBC)

14/ Building decarbonization is not often talked about but it’s hugely important in our battle against climate change. Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of global annual greenhouse gas emissions and roughly the same proportion of US emissions. Part of that is the “embedded emissions” represented by building materials (steel and concrete are extremely carbon-intensive to manufacture). But the bigger part is from direct combustion of fossil fuels for space and water heating. This week, the BDC released a “Roadmap to Decarbonize California Buildings,” a set of targets, principles, and policies that can meet California’s ambitious emissions goals, which require total, economy-wide decarbonization by 2045. BDC urges the state to adopt Zero Emission Building Codes for residential buildings in 2025 and commercial in 2028. That will stop the problem from getting worse, save residents money and stimulate the market for technologies that will help decarbonize existing buildings. Two of the three ingredients for building decarbonization in California are now in place: “a path forward and a coalition of the willing.” What remains now is for state leaders to get moving. (Vox)

15/ The European Union and nine other countries, including the US and Russia, approved an international agreement on Thursday that will prohibit commercial vessels from fishing in the Arctic in order to preserve the region’s fragile ecosystem. The agreement aims to reduce the environmental impact of unregulated commercial fishing in the Arctic high seas by banning trawling for 16 years. An area of about 2.8 million square kilometres of the central Atlantic high seas will be protected as a result. There is currently no commercial fishing taking place in this area because it was previously covered in ice. (Euractiv)

Other notables…

  • Polar bears prowling around a children’s playground. Polar bears lumbering along the corridors of apartment blocks and offices. Polar bears descending on a sleepy Russian town in their dozens. To state the obvious: polar bears should not be wandering into human habitation, and certainly not in these numbers. That they are doing so in Belushya Guba shows how they are being driven off their normal migration routes and hunting trails by a changing climate. This has long been predicted – with the Arctic heating twice as fast as the rest of the planet, winter temperatures are rising and the sea ice – which is the primary habitat of polar bears – is shrinking. (The Guardian)

  • A trial of ways to cool turtle nests is underway in Queensland’s Far North as global warming threatens turtle populations throughout the tropics. The project was prompted by research indicating that more than 99 per cent of juvenile green turtles in the feeding grounds of the northern Great Barrier Reef stock were female. (Phys)
  • Giraffes just silently entered the list of endangered animals facing extinction and humans are to blame. Two subspecies of giraffes are said to be close to extinction. Their population is rapidly declining due to destruction of habitat and poaching. Other reasons for the decline in the number of tallest animals in the world are agriculture, mining, and construction across all of Africa. (McGill / BBC)

  • On Friday, Chief Judge Brian Preston of the New South Wales Land and Environment Court handed down a landmark judgement in Australia confirming a decision to refuse a new open-cut coal mine in New South Wales. The proposed Rocky Hill mine’s contribution to climate change was one of the key reasons cited for refusing the application. (ABC)
  • A team from the Institute for Conservation Research of the San Diego Zoo Global and the Loisaba Conservancy in Kenya confirmed the existence of black leopards in Laikipia County, an area north of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. There have been a few reported observations of this species in Africa, but, until now, only one had been confirmed, in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, in 1909. (NYT)

  • An estimated 9% of the 458 fish species assessed in Lake Malawi are at high  risk of extinction. With more than 1000 fish species, Lake Malawi has more distinct fish species than any other lake in the world. New species are discovered regularly and some scientists believe that the lake may contain more than 2000 species. (The Conversation)
  • Hundreds of animal species are at risk of extinction because wildlife trade restrictions are taking too long to come into effect, a major new study warns.  Over a quarter of animals on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list – the world’s most critically endangered – are not protected by Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Cites is regarded as the primary international framework for preventing species extinction due to international wildlife trade. (Independent)
  • The president of World Wildlife Fund International has written to Australia’s Prime Minister and New South Wales Premier calling for urgent action to better protect the nation’s forests and koalas. In the letter, Pavan Sukhdev warned both governments that koalas are facing a crisis like that suffered by orangutans. The biggest overall threat to the state’s koala population was declining habitat. (ABC)

  • India and Nepal to enter formal agreement for biodiversity conservation. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is expected to put an emphasis on cooperation for conservation and protection of the tiger, India’s national animal. (Mongabay)

  • Hundreds of alien species are being carried around the world on a tide of ocean plastic, posing a significant threat to native wildlife. Crabs, clams and even large fish are among the creatures hitching a ride on top of or inside plastic vessels, crossing vast stretches of ocean. (Independent)
  • Biodiversity of Hindu Kush Himalayas will plummet by 2100. The global biodiversity hotspot will lose up to 87% of original habitat by the end of the century, with repercussions around the world. (The Third Pole)

  • The Great Barrier Reef just can’t catch a break. Year after year, this global treasure has been battered by cyclones and beaten by bleaching events. Now an exceptional year of rainfall in Queensland, Australia has caused a huge flood of polluted runoff to rush out to sea, straight towards the reef. Researchers said the flood run-off, which likely included nitrogen and pesticide chemicals, were flowing as far as outer-shelf reefs 60 kilometres from the Queensland coast. (ABC / Science Alert)

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