Friday, August 29, 2014

Does Whale Watching in the Name of Conservation Do More Harm Than Good? Some Scientists Say Wildlife Tourists Stress Out Marine Mammals

(Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins/Getty Images)
b, Take Part:
Kristina Bravo is a Los Angeles–based writer. She is an Assistant Editor at TakePart full bio 
Watching whales and dolphins in their natural habitats may seem like a good alternative to seeing them in aquariums, but some scientists say that the activity may be putting the marine mammals at risk.

Researchers presented their findings at the International Marine Conservation Congress, a symposium held in Glasgow, Scotland, last week.

“Whale-watching is traditionally seen as green tourism,” Leslie New, a Maryland-based wildlife biologist who works for the United States Geological Survey, told Nature. “The negative is the potential for disturbance.”

More than 13 million people take whale-watching trips each year, generating an estimated $2.1 billion annually.

Boat collisions might be the least of the marine mammals’ problems, according to studies presented at IMCC. The effects of whale-watching excursions are unclear, but scientists worry it may cause behavioral changes in whales and dolphins, such as not feeding or swimming away from boats, which takes energy.

Vanessa Williams-Grey, head of the Responsible Whale Watch Program at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, told the BBC in 2011 that the industry could be harmful to marine mammals.

“Badly run trips can translate into all sorts of negative reactions from the whales,” said Williams-Grey. “They can stop resting or increase their respiratory rate. If they are using more energy, this will have an impact on their health.”

Other scientists champion whale watching, saying it inspires conservation efforts.

“Presentations in the symposium pointed out much good that whale watching can do if - and that’s a big if - managed appropriately and impacts are minimized or removed completely,” said Chris Parsons, a whale and dolphin researcher at Pacific Whale Foundation, a Hawaii-based nonprofit that also offers whale-watching trips.

Emmanuelle Martinez, a senior scientist with the Pacific Whale Foundation, said tourists bear responsibility for behaving properly in the presence of marine mammals.

“It is not uncommon to see people on their boats and kayaks approaching too close to the mammals, and Jet Skis doing doughnuts around a pod of dolphins,” she said. “I even witnessed a lady literally launching herself on top of a Hector’s dolphin - an endangered species - that was bowriding the boat she was on.”

“Educating the public to choose the best and most compliant tour operator and to follow guidelines is therefore very important if we don’t want to cause death by 1,000 cuts,” Martinez added.

The Final Wild West

English: World oceans
World oceans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Increasing exploitation of ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction present serious governance challenges.

Being terrestrial creatures, much of our environmental concerns are focused on the land, coasts and the atmosphere. 

We tend to forget the sea, particularly those parts outside the control of nation states.

In a new study published in the journal Global Environmental Change, a group of scientists from the centre and other institutions working together in the international “Nereus Program - Predicting the Future Ocean” draw attention to the unique governance challenges that face our oceans and how the ‘high seas’ have been characterized as the last frontier of exploitation on the planet, a figurative final "Wild West".

"It was long thought that the open-ocean and deep seas were too distant to be affected by technological innovation and changing markets, however this is not the case. We are witnessing an increased use of ocean areas located beyond national jurisdiction," says lead author and centre PhD student Andrew Merrie.

Deep sea mining, inhabiting the ocean, fishing of as yet undiscovered species, geoengineering and harvesting of marine genetic resources are all activities on the rise, making the future uncertain for the parts of our ocean outside the governing jurisdiction of individual countries.

Trends in uses 
The argument is often made that humans are using the oceans in many ways, but what does this use actually look like? Andrew Merrie and his team collected and analysed much of the available information on human uses of the oceans and how these uses have changed over time. 

"We used this data to create a graphical baseline which could describe not only the overall human use of the oceans but also the emergence of new users and unexpected dynamics linked to the way humans use the oceans,"says Merrie.

These use and exploitation trends included both those for living marine resource such as fish and non-living marine resources such as oil and gas. 

For instance, the exploration depth for ocean oil and gas resources has gone from less than five hundred metres in the mid-1960s to over three thousand metres today. This is because of the rapid advancement of technology that is enabling the exploitation of the deep oceans potentially even in areas not under the jurisdiction of nation states.

"The main conclusion of this trends analysis is that diverse resources in these areas outside national jurisdiction are becoming more attractive to a significant group of users and the technology that makes exploitation feasible and economically viable is being developed. As such, these users are sitting on the doorstep of these vast marine areas and there are only inadequate governance mechanisms in place," says Merrie.

Governing surprise - an oxymoron? 
He argues that it is time to move beyond just the user groups we already know about and think about new users and other surprises that may lead to unanticipated shifts and unique governance challenges.

The paper distinguishes between two types of such unexpected dynamics: 'Slow burning emergencies' and 'rude surprises'.

The first level of surprise dynamic occurs where fragmented and insufficient regulation in the high seas creates a "gold rush" effect, where resource users are able to make large investments in technology and exploit resources before governance institutions can react. 

By contrast, 'rude surprises' are situations where completely unexpected, highly unlikely and largely unforeseen challenges may develop, potentially within a governance vacuum.

"What we see is that many existing institutions are not up to the task of ‘embracing surprise’ and that the emergence of transformative governance institutions will be required to address these new challenges," he concludes.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Divisive Politics Will Fail Forests and the Community

by The Wilderness Society:

This Tuesday, 26 August and Wednesday, 27 August the Tasmanian upper house will debate the Liberal Government’s farcically-named Rebuilding the Forestry Industry Bill
IMAGE: Blue Tier, North East Tasmania | Matt Brain
If successful, the bill - a landmark in cynical and self-defeating anti-environment politics - will replace the historic Tasmanian Forest Agreement (TFA) Act, ripping up protection of 400,000 hectares of spectacular forest in places like the Blue Tier, the Tarkine, Bruny Island and Weilangta.
The Tasmanian Forest Agreement Act - passed just last year - was the result of four years of negotiation, 30 years of campaigning, and a strong desire by the Tasmanian community to end the forest conflict. 
The TFA laws protected forests, supported top-flight forest certification for consumers, and encouraged collaboration between government, environment, industry and community groups to keep the hard-won peace in the forests.
Polls have shown the majority of the Tasmanian community want a new future for the island state that doesn’t involve conflict over forests. Instead, the Tasmanian Government’s proposal will rip up agreed forest protection, open a million hectares of existing forest reserves for logging, and threaten the Forest Stewardship Council certification that is the No. 1 requirement for the forestry industry.
The Liberals spent years in opposition criticising those seeking a fair outcome for the forests, the industry and for workers. Now in government, they are unable to admit that the future of the industry it claims to support depends on protecting forests.
With questions and opposition from the independent upper house and key stakeholders - including environment groups - flying thick and fast, and the novice Government amending its own legislation on the fly, the bill may yet fail or be heavily changed in the coming days.
What is clear, however, is that if the bill passes, the Tasmanian Government is lining itself up for years of pain. The Tasmanian community will hold the Government responsible for damaging the environment, hurting Tasmania’s reputation, and taking an axe to a forestry industry slowly recovering as a result of unprecedented collaboration between former adversaries.
The Government will be judged on the consequences of re-injecting cheap, conflict-driven politics, when Tasmania’s community is crying out for an end to the forest ‘wars’.
The Tasmanian Forest Agreement has already delivered a securely-protected World Heritage area, kept the chainsaws away from half a million hectares of forest, and shown that a strong commitment to working with past adversaries can deliver for nature.
Regardless of the outcomes of the impending vote, the Wilderness Society is committed to working with the community to see Tasmania's old growth forests and wild places protected - forever.

How Australia Perfected Solar Power and Then Went Back to Coal

All images courtesy of the Clean Energy Council
by Julian Morgans,

There was a time in the 1980s when Australia led the world in solar technology.

To begin with, Australia receives more solar radiation per square foot than anywhere on the planet, and that presents an obvious advantage.

But the true catalyst was geography: two thirds of the country consists of uninhabited desert.

This posed problems for engineers tasked with constructing a national telephone network in the early 1970s.

The solution was to build remote relay stations powered with solar energy, which at the time was a fledgling, expensive technology.

Yet by 1978 the national provider, Telecom, had developed reliable solar cells that could be installed affordably across the country and be infrequently maintained. International recognition came in 1983 when Perth was tapped with hosting the Solar World Congress.

Fast-forward to 2014 and Australian solar power is in a very different place. This week a proposed solar farm with 2,000 dishes - capable of powering 30,000 homes - was canceled amid uncertainty about the future of renewable energy.

This comes at a time when every one of the country’s proposed solar farms are on hold and coal operators push legislation to strangle solar proliferation. So what happened?

“Power generators and NSPs (network service providers) are scared,” says Giles Parkinson, who is the editor of the green news site Renew Economy.

“There will always be a grid, but it’s just a question of where that power comes from. Now we’re at the point where rooftop solar, subsidized by solar farms, is becoming a cheaper option. You see this with the internet affecting telcos, with digital cameras and film - it’s inevitable with new technology. But in Australia it's catastrophic because we used to be leaders, but we're now going backwards.”

Like most of the world, Australia swings between climate disavowal and action.

In the 1980s Australian solar power was federally funded. Then, in the mid 90s, the incoming government scrapped the Energy Research and Development Corporation. Broadly speaking coal became the energy source of choice, until July 2012, when Australia introduced a fixed-price tax on carbon emissions.

This carbon tax was part of a slate of climate initiatives called the Clean Energy Plan, which also legislated that 20 percent of electricity would come from renewables by 2020.

Now the weather-vane has swung back, with a center-right government [ED: This is plainly false - the Abbott Government is NOT centre-right, they are the most right-wing government in the history of this country - let's call a spade a spade] coming to power in 2013, promising to repeal the “job destroying carbon tax.”

They succeeded on July 17, and although they reluctantly retained the binder on renewables, they placed the entire program “under review.”

According to Dr. Richard Corkish, who is the COO for the Australian Center for Advanced Photovoltaics, “under review” is clever wording as it “effectively achieves the same thing as a repeal.”

Here’s why: For a proposed solar farm to get financing, they need a signed power-purchase agreement from a distributor, stipulating exactly how much power they’ll buy. But given distributors are no longer required to buy renewable energy, and given their business models are threatened by solar, they’re not signing the agreements. The result is that solar farms don’t get built.

According to Dr. Corkish this is what happened to the aforementioned solar farm. “We were hoping they could hold out until the review finished,” he said. “But uncertainty is enough and the investors ran. It’s a terrible shame.”

According to Australia’s Clean Energy Council, there are four large-scale solar farms currently under construction and another 13 in development, all with uncertain futures. As their Acting Chief Executive, Kane Thornton, explained via email, “Australia’s Renewable Energy Target is the critical policy for all renewable energy projects.

While large scale solar projects also receive support from other Australian Government programs, without the Renewable Energy Target they wouldn’t get built.”

Not only is financial uncertainty putting solar technology on hold, generators and distributors are pushing legislation to repress it, which, according to Giles Parkinson, is “basically a conspiracy.”

As he says, “none of the incumbents want to see more solar. Generators are fucked and they know it. NSPs will eventually profit from solar, but they’re focused on the short term, so they’re resisting.”

One example is in the northern state of Queensland, where power companies from July can charge their customers “an additional amount … for the purchase of electricity from renewable or environmentally friendly sources.”

There are several conditions to this, but the upshot is that companies can now charge heavy solar consumers (mostly businesses) around $500 (£302) for every service, including meter readings. This piece of legislation, which is basically a deterrent to solar, was quietly approved at the behest of the state’s coal lobbyists, with very little scrutiny.

This suppression of solar is widespread, says Dr. Anna Bruce, who is an engineering lecturer at the University of New South Wales. “NSPs are doing all they can to stop it. They’re capping the amount of solar power that can be fed into the grid in certain areas, and they’ve introduced bans on exporting. The justification is that we need the network. If every home installs solar, the network won’t exist.”

But wouldn’t this behaviour attract the attention of some sort of consumer watchdog? Apparently not. Bruce claims that technological progress has outstripped the warning systems of advocacy groups, but Giles Parkinson says it goes further.

“In Australia, we have this unique situation where regulators are run by state governments, and they see their role as protecting the incumbents, which are often the state power companies. It’s a hopeless conflict of interest. Just a classic example of aging white men who don’t understand the future.”

Despite the gloom about the short term, most exponents of solar seem positive about the future. The consensus is that while governments come and go, the market will always demand the cheapest option.

Eventually, it’s hoped, solar will plunge power companies into something called the "death spiral." This is essentially when solar and battery technology allow consumers to use far less grid power, which will force costs onto an exponentially shrinking customer pool, which will encourage more to install solar.

The grid will still exist, but customers will be using insufficient amounts of power to necessitate traditional generators, leaving solar farms to fill the gap.

If that sounds a little too much like hacktivist optimism, Parkinson insists Australians can at least claw back on the solar science front. “We’ve got the fundamentals,” he says. “Lots of sun, expensive electricity, and smart people. We’ll get there.” 

Follow Julian on Twitter.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Bears to be Killed or Captured

by Max A.E. Rossberg, European Wilderness Society:
Bears to be killed or captured

First a bear get officially shot in Slovakia after wandering around a settlement then a female bear protecting its two cubs scares off a mushroom collector also is supposed to either be shot or captured and brought to an animal shelter.

Reinhold Messner has been quoted of saying “Bears need space and we (in Europe) do not have that anymore”. He suggested that it is better to take the female bear into custody.

It is kind of funny how many people get killed or injured daily by horses or cows or other domesticated animals and no one calls for a zoo or killing them but if a single bear protects its cubs we almost automatically resort to a firing squad.

This is one of the reason we are so eagerly pushing for the identification and designation of more wilderness areas in Europe so bears can live in peace.

More information on these two events:

Bear killed in Slovakia
Spare The Life Of Daniza! Mother Bear That Protected Her Cubs!
Danzia schützte ihre Jungtiere

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Scientists Discover How to Turn Toxic Trash Into Solar Panels: Lead From Old Car Batteries can be Recycled to Create Renewable Energy

(Photo: Armend Nimani/Getty Images)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012. full bio 
Researchers at MIT have announced a novel technology to recycle lead from discarded car batteries and fashion it into long-lasting solar panels.

That means that after your old car battery dies, it may one day find new life, creating enough clean, renewable energy to power 30 households while also helping to reduce lead pollution. Exposure to lead has been shown to cause cognitive and behavioral problems in children.

Professors and graduate students at the university published their findings in the journal Energy and Environmental Science. They described how recent advances in solar technology allow for the use of a lead-based substance called perovskite to make solar cells.

“Amazingly, because the perovskite photovoltaic material takes the form of a thin film just half a micrometer thick, the team’s analysis shows that the lead from a single car battery could produce enough solar panels to provide power for 30 households,” MIT said in a statement about the discovery.

The lead-based cells are nearly as efficient as silicon-based cells used commercially today, the authors said, and recycled lead is just as effective as newly smelted lead. “Cells made from perovskite have an efficiency of 19 to 20 percent,” said Po-Yen Chen, a graduate student of chemical engineering, who coauthored the paper.

Standard silicon-based cells have an efficiency ranging from 20 to 25 percent, Chen said. Using car batteries as a source of lead for the panels benefits the environment in at least three ways: It recycles the neurotoxic heavy metal and keeps it out of landfills, it reduces the need for mining and smelting, and it creates sustainable, nonpolluting energy.

Environmental contamination from car-battery lead is a “global pollutant” that is especially acute in the developing world,” according to the Blacksmith Institute, a nonprofit group that works to clean up highly polluted sites where children are most at risk.

Used car batteries are shipped to cities in the developing world. “Recycling and smelting operations are usually conducted in the open air, in densely populated urban areas, and often with few (if any) pollution controls [that] release lead contaminated compounds into the local environment in critical quantities,” the Blacksmith Institute stated on its website.

In the United States, car batteries are the primary source of lead pollution, according to a study conducted in 2003 by the Michigan-based Ecology Center and the Environmental Defense Fund.

The report found that the North American automobile industry contributes to the release or transfer of more than 300 million pounds of lead annually due to mining, smelting, manufacturing, recycling, and disposal, as well as normal vehicle use.

More than 200 million lead-acid batteries could be retired in the near future as automakers switch to new technologies, Chen said.

“When the perovskite cells came out three years ago, we saw they were made of lead, and we got the idea to use car batteries,” said Chen. “We were thinking of how to make the cells without harvesting more lead from the environment.”

A video of the team building a prototype solar panel from a car battery can be viewed here.

“From a general perspective, the concept is very appealing,” said Bob Gibson, a spokesperson for the Solar Electric Power Association. “A big question will be in what it will take to bring this to commercial production and at a price point where it can compete with silicon” solar panels.

Two companies are trying to commercially develop the battery-to-solar-cell technology, according to Chen. “The process is much simpler compared to silicon cells, and you don’t need an expansive facility,” he noted. “The process is expected to be cheaper, so the product would be too.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Eight Years Ago, They Were the Most Common Mammal in America. Now They're Almost Extinct

eight, years, ago,, they, were, the, most, common, mammal, in, america., now, they're, almost, extinct,
Image Credit: Getty
by Eileen Shim,

The news

Vampire-evoking, blood-sucking and Ebola-linked bats might not be the most beloved animals in the world.

Even so, these animals play a crucial role in our ecosystem - and now they are in danger of disappearing.

According to Wired, 6.5 million Little Brown Bats lived in the eastern U.S. in 2006, making them the most populous wild mammal species in America at the time. Since then, millions of Little Brown Bats have died, leaving them a "threatened species" in many states.

What is killing the bats?

Though bat death has often been linked to pesticides and other chemicals, the chief cause seems to be White Nose Syndrome (WNS), a fatal fungal infection with no treatment or cure. The fungus, which kills bats in hibernation during wintertime, has been quickly spreading throughout the eastern United States.

Image Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

That doesn't mean that all bats are endangered - but many are

For instance, WNS is endemic in Europe, where many bats have resistance to the fungus. But American bats do not have this immunity: 11 of the 47 American bat species are currently affected, with four of those being listed as endangered. As WNS affects hibernating bats, that means that just about half of all American bat species could be affected in the future.

Bats are incredibly important in our environment

In addition to getting rid of agricultural pests for us for free, some species also play a crucial role in pollination as well. It's also important to keep bats' place in the ecosystem in mind: Should a large bat population suddenly decrease, that could mean an increase in mosquitoes and other pests.

What can we do?

For now, the best method of containing WNS is isolation and prevention. This means identifying and closing bat caves that have already been infected, and making sure that humans don't help to spread the disease any further. It's already been speculated that humans brought WNS from Europe to America; the best we can do is to stay out of caves and let nature run its course - hopefully that will be enough to help American bats regrow their struggling populations.

h/t: Wired

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pan European Green Corridor Network

English: Bachalpsee in the morning, Bernese Alps
Bachalpsee in the morning, Bernese Alps (Wikipedia)
by Max A.E. Rossberg, European Wilderness Society:
Based on the enthusiastic response to our Pyrenees to Carpathians natural green corridor project, our Society decided to develop the idea further into a Pan European Green Corridor Network. 
We believe that such a network can be set up for the implementation and promotion of wilderness and wildlife preservation across the continent.

The Pan-European Green network (PEGnet) initiative aims to create a vast unbroken ecological corridor connecting natural landscapes from the Atlantic coast to the Black Sea and from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean.

This initiative will be implemented in various phases like connecting mountains in Portugal, the Cantabrian Mountains, the Pyrenees and the Massif Central to the Alps, and eventually, the Carpathians and the Balkans, along which natural ecological processes are allowed in creating a landscape rich in biodiversity to the benefit of nature and humanity.

Pan European Green Corridor Network

Europe is a highly fragmented continent. Vast areas of Europe’s last great wild places have also been transformed into urban zones or cut up by an increasingly dense transport network.

Recent statistics from the European Environment Agency illustrate just how significant these changes are. In a single decade around 5% of EU territory has been covered with concrete or otherwise converted into completely artificial surfaces including industrial areas, holiday resorts and infrastructure.

Europe’s motorways have increased in length by almost 41% (15,000 km) within that same period and will increase by 12,000 km in the years to come. In densely populated countries like Belgium, the average size of contiguous land units not dissected by major transport routes has been reduced to just 20 km² (EU average is 130 km²).

The Pan European Green Corridor Network offers a unique opportunity to recreate natural connections and routes throughout Europe, with wilderness areas coupled with the Natura2000 Network as resting and mating places for the migratory animals along these corridors.

In order to maximise the contribution of PEGnet to wilderness protection, the project includes the following three elements:
  • habitat restorations based on locating gaps in the current network of protected areas
  • supporting a sustainable comeback of wildlife in Europe
  • communicating the socio-economic benefits of large scale European-wide green corridor set up with special attention of preserving wilderness for future generations
Based on our initial research supported by the Wildland Research Institute, PEGnet will be implemented in 4 phases:
  • Phase 1: connecting mountains from the Atlantic coast to the Black Sea, which is basically our original idea to establish a mega-corridor from the Pyrenees to the Carpathians, connecting Europe’s 3 iconic mountains ranges
  • Phase 2: linking the mountain corridor to the south into the Iberian Peninsula, Apennines, Dinaric Arc and the Balkan mountains
  • Phase 3: linking the mountain corridor to the North: the inclusion of the Baltic states, Fenno-Scandinavia and the European lowlands in the large scale green corridor concept.
  • Phase 4: from the Carpathians to the Ural and the Caucasus. As wilderness knows no political boundaries, we must recognise that differences in political views shall not stop us to make our PEGnet truly European!
This initiative is a classical win-win, because - wildlife will benefit from more space to freely roam - human will benefit from more ecosystem services such as flood and climate change mitigation!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Expansion of Sundrop Farms Seawater Horticulture Project Approved by Port Augusta Council

Port augusta location map in South Australia
Port Augusta in South Australia (Wikipedia)
by ABC News:

A horticultural project that uses seawater to grow vegetables, Sundrop Farms, is set for expansion with the backing of South Australia's Port Augusta Council.

Sundrop Farms uses solar-thermal energy to desalinate water from Spencer Gulf to grow food in greenhouses about 20 kilometres south of Port Augusta.

The company was planning to build eight more greenhouses and supporting infrastructure across a 20-hectare site.

The expansion would include a solar-thermal station with a 115-metre tower and 11,000 stands with mirrors to power the operation.

There would be several seawater pipelines and a visitor centre to help promote tourism interest in the venture. 

The ABC Catalyst program checked out the Sundrop growing venture in its arid landscape.

Port Augusta Council's development assessment panel approved the expansion if environmental conditions were met for the management of brine extracted from the water.

The planned solar-thermal generator for the horticulture project would be smaller than one proposed for an upgrade of Port Augusta's currently coal-fired power stations nearby.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Natural Capital: A Good Idea or the Path to Ruin?

by , Conservation Council SA:

Alex Gaut, Biodiversity Program Manager here at the Conservation Council of SA has been pondering economics and the environment. Here are some of her thoughts on the topic.

I have recently started a journey into the world of environmental economics.

I have no background and, I thought, no interest, in economics and started where most of us are at with having to manage my own finances and attempting to understand how the national and global economy affects that.

It is beginning to dawn on me just how powerful a driver the economy has become. Do you remember just a few years ago the term ‘triple bottom line’ was everywhere? Where is it now? It’s gone. Because all too quickly it was realised that it wasn’t a line but a triangle and the economy is at the top.

I credit Nicole Fosse with sparking my interest in this area via a presentation she gave in Adelaide last year. She was both eloquent and scary but how much of it was dramatisation I don’t know. What I do know is that some of her advice made a lot of sense, for example, decouple your finances from the global economy and try not to use credit.

However, I digress.

Today I read something that really made me stop: ‘biodiversity loss should be regarded as one of the greatest economic problems of this century’.

Just stop and think about that. Most of you reading this already know that biodiversity loss is a very serious problem but we think of it as an environmental problem. It is rarely phrased as an economic problem.

But more and more economists are working with ecologists and environmentalists try to put some kind of value onto ecosystem services - our ‘natural capital’. For example, see Natural Capital Initiative, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity and Wave Partnership. 

In what is known as ‘classical’ economics there were traditionally three factors: land, labour and capital. The ‘land’ factor included all natural services and resources that contributed to agricultural productivity but somewhere along the way ‘land’ got subsumed under ‘capital’ in ‘neoclassical’ economic models, thereby losing any value it might have otherwise been given.

Richard Heinberg, a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, states that this ‘amounted to a declaration that Nature is merely a subset of the human economy - an endless pile of resources to be transformed into wealth’ and there the problem started.

It is extremely difficult to account for biodiversity and natural capital, let alone face the arguments for and against trying to do so. There are significant obstacles in trying to analyse the economics of biodiversity:

It has system properties that defy easy definition. It is more than the aggregate sum of species: some species play a vital role in the survival of ecosystems; some provide key ecosystem services to humans; some are positively harmful to humans; species depend upon each other; and policies aimed at biodiversity are often oblique, aimed at preserving habitats rather than particular species. Biodiversity is a series of overlapping public goods from the local to the global scale.1

The subsuming of ‘land’ into the ‘capital’ factor meant that not only did it not get accounted for but that it could be ‘externalised’, it is an unpriced impact affecting another party but for which there is no accountability.

Externalities provide corporations with economic loopholes through which they can pass all the pollution and waste they produce, without having to account for it.

For many economists that’s what is so wonderful about the farce of GDP, which measures economic activity in the form of monetary transactions.

For example, any time there is a major natural disaster, all the activities associated with the recovery count towards an increase in GDP because houses have to be renovated or rebuilt, infrastructure has to be repaired, injured patients have to be cared for and it all costs money, therefore money has to be spent, products made, services rendered and thereby an increase in economic activity, leading to an increase in GDP. Didn’t you know? Climate change is going to mean more GDP!

Richard Heinberg explains it well in his latest book, ‘The End of Growth’:

If a country has happy families, the GDP won’t reflect that fact; but if the same country suffers a war or natural disaster monetary transactions will likely increase, leading to a bounce in the GDP.

Calculating a nation‘s overall health according to its GDP makes about as much sense as evaluating the quality of a piece of music solely by counting the number of notes it contains. There are some good arguments to support putting a financial value on ecosystem services and biodiversity but there are some good ones against it too.

Making large, powerful corporations incorporate ‘externalities’ into their accounting creates interesting results and may be able to significantly influence decision-making for the better.

Pavan Sukhdev is the Study Leader for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity program, and provides excellent examples of how it can change outcomes, financial and environmental. I highly recommend his TED talk.

The UK government has introduced ‘Whole of Government Accounts’ whereby they are going to attempt to account for natural capital alongside other forms of capital and the UK Natural Capital Committee has been established to work on this. Some of the benefits of attempting to do this are that:
  • it can be used to consider whether and to what extent biodiversity is being preserved
  • it can be used to estimate the required capital maintenance costs as a charge on current spending and to check whether the capital maintenance is being met by current spending
  • natural assets can be treated as ‘assets-in-perpetuity’ rather than assets to be depreciated
  • cost-benefit analyses can be conducted

However, the downsides of this approach are that market instruments such as offsets are beginning to be developed to commodify and trade nature.

Whilst carbon offsetting might not be such a bad idea (although it’s still a moot point), biodiversity offsetting sounds like a really bad idea because an ecosystem is more than the sum of the parts. And for some, taking such a human-centric perspective is far too narrow and ignores any intrinsic value.

Personally, I love the idea of intrinsic value. How is it possible to put a financial value on the sense of wonder I get from a vast stretch of wilderness, or from admiring the beauty of a leafy sea dragon? How do you put financial value on nature as artistic inspiration? How much value do you put on someone’s improved wellbeing because they were able to interact with nature?

George Monbiot has written a piece about the downsides of the commoditisation of nature, how once a resource is ‘commoditised’, then speculators and traders step in and start talking about return on investment, blended revenue streams and so on.

But it’s probably too late because even some well known environmentalists are now starting to discuss return on investment for biodiversity protection - spend a lot of money saving one species and let many others increase their risk of extinction?

Or do the unthinkable (to many of us) and let one species go so that money can be spent saving more species before their risk of extinction is so high that they can’t be saved?

By accounting for nature in economic models are we creating more of the same problem that got us to where we are today? Are we buying into economic growth (and corporate power) because it seems like there is no other way to make humans (and in particular corporations) value nature? Or is it one step closer to forcing business to face up to their impacts?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Explainer: Back Burning and Fuel Reduction

Bushfire regrowth in Australia, 2003; visually...
Bushfire regrowth in Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by David Bowman, University of Tasmania

The recent surge of bushfire disasters has introduced fire-fighting tactics to everyday language.

Two important approaches that use fire to fight fire are “back burning” and “fuel-reduction burning”.

Unfortunately these two fundamentally different approaches are often confused.

Fuel reduction

Fuel reduction (also known variously as prescribed, planned, controlled or hazard-reduction burning) is the targeted burning of bushland to control fire behaviour.

The idea is to reduce the intensity of subsequent fires at the same place by removing fine surface fuels such as leaf litter. Reducing these hazards increases the window of opportunity for fire fighters to control bushfires.

The technique can only be applied to open flammable vegetation. In dense eucalypt forests (such as wet sclerophyll forests) fuel-reduction burning is impractical because of the risk of uncontrollable fires sustained by heavy fuel loads that only become flammable in dry conditions. This limits the utility of this approach in heavily forested, wet regions.

Even in more open, dry sclerophyll forests, extreme fire weather makes reduction techniques much less effective than in milder conditions. For example, with extreme heat and winds, eucalypt crowns can catch on fire regardless of the amount of leaf litter and surface fuel.

Fuel reduction has to be applied frequently. Fuel loads build up quickly, often returning to a carrying capacity (when litter fall is balanced by decomposition) between 10 and 20 years.

This underpins fuel-reduction targets. In Victoria, for instance, the 5% fuel-reduction target means a given area of bush will be burnt every 20 years. But ecologists are concerned that such high frequencies can have damaging effects on plant and animal species that require longer fire-free intervals to complete their life cycles.

There is also much debate about the effectiveness of fuel-reduction burning, given that a huge area of landscape needs to be treated in order to increase the chance of significantly influencing wildfire behaviour.

There is growing evidence that the best benefits of fuel-reduction burning are close to the bushland suburbs (also known as the wildland-urban interface).

It must be acknowledged that such targeted burning is expensive to carry out safely given the need for engagement with numerous stakeholders (private land owners, councils, various branches of government). It is also dangerous work, which carries a risk of destroying houses and infrastructure if the fires escape control.

Finally, a serious side effect is smoke pollution, which can briefly fumigate nearby communities. Because of these constraints, attention is increasingly being focused on managing fuel without burning. This can involve using herbivores and thinning vegetation, including burning the debris in specially designed portable furnaces that have low smoke emissions.

A large fuel-reduction burn in Hobart in May 2013. Mike Rowe/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Back burning

The difference between fuel-reduction burning and back burning is effectively the same as the difference between elective and emergency surgery.

Back burning is a last-resort measure to stop wildfire from burning out specific areas. It works by setting fires from containment lines, such as established fire breaks or hastily contrasted ones made with a bulldozer or cut by hand.

Back burns are often set at night or during weather conditions when the fire danger is low. A spectacular use of back burning, which stemmed the threat of two large uncontrolled bushfires, occurred at the height of the Blue Mountains bushfire disaster in Spring 2013. But back burning is dangerous and carries substantial risks of exacerbating a bushfire event.

The ecological impacts of back burning are rarely discussed but may be quite substantial. Wildlife, which can normally flee a fire front, can become trapped between the bushfire and the back burn.

Exacerbating impacts on wildlife is the technique known as “blacking out”, involving setting fire to unburnt areas that escaped combustion by the back burn. Such unburnt patches can be critical refuges for wildlife and a sort of seed for recovery of adjacent burnt areas.

Another harmful effect of back burning is the unintentional destruction of fire-sensitive biological communities. These include fire-sensitive plants, habitat for endangered wildlife and areas recovering from a previous high-severity fire.

Regrettably, in some situations ecologically vulnerable areas have been sacrificed to protect lives and property. This can be avoided by having ecologists help design the footprint of a back burn, but extreme bushfire situations may not allow sufficient time for fine-tuning.

One unappreciated aspect of back burning is that it makes it impossible to study how a bushfire would naturally spread across the landscape, given the coupling of human-set fires with the wildfire. For this reason, the fires set by lightning and left to burn in the south-west Tasmania wilderness are of considerable interest.

Flammable landscape

We can’t totally suppress fire in a flammable landscape - nor should we. Long unburnt areas can accumulate very heavy fuel loads, resulting in ecologically destructive fires.

But it is also important to acknowledge that wildfires achieve fuel reduction too. This occurs particularly on the flanks or sides of a fire, which burn at a lower intensity than the front of the fire, and during cooler periods between fire “runs” that are driven by extreme fire conditions.

For this reason bushfires are sometimes left to burn if they present no threat to any valued economic or ecological assets.

We are yet to achieve ecologically sustainable fire management of flammable landscapes. Managing bushfires will become more complicated given the increased extreme fire weather driven by climate change and the need to reduce smoke pollution to minimise greenhouse gas emissions and protect human health.

Fuel-reduction burning will remain a key tool that must be cleverly incorporated in landscape fire planning. This will need to involve targeted fuel treatments around areas vulnerable to bushfires, as well as the development of buffer zones that can be used to contain wildfires using techniques like back burning and direct attack using water and fire retardants.
The Conversation

David Bowman receives funding from ARC, NASA, TERN and NERP.

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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

India - Selling Out To Monsanto: GMOs and the Bigger Picture

take-a-stand-against-gmosby Colin Todhunter, Global Research:

On 15 August, India will mark its 67th anniversary of independence from Britain.

It may seem strange to some that a nation would publicly celebrate its independence while at the same time it less publicly cedes it to outsiders.

The gleaming façade of flags and fly-pasts will belie the fact that national security and independence do not depend on military might and patriotic speeches.

Eye-catching celebrations will take place in Delhi and much of the media will mouth platitudes about the strength of the nation and its independence. The reality is, however, an ongoing, concerted attempt to undermine and destroy the very foundation and security of the country.

The bedrock of any society is its agriculture. Without food there can be no life. Without food security, there can be no genuine independence.

A recent report by the organisation GRAIN revealed that small farms produce most of the world’s food and are more productively efficient than large farms [1]. Facilitated by an appropriate policy framework, small farmers could easily feed the global population.

But small farmers are currently squeezed onto less than a quarter of the world’s farmland and the world is fast losing farms and farmers through the concentration of land into the hands big agribusiness and the rich and powerful. If nothing is done to reverse this trend, the world will lose its capacity to feed itself.

By definition, peasant agriculture prioritises food production for local and national markets as well as for farmers’ own families. Corporations take over scarce fertile land and prioritise non-food commodities or export crops for profit and markets far away that cater for the needs of the affluent.

This process impoverishes local communities and brings about food insecurity. GRAIN concludes that the concentration of fertile agricultural land in fewer and fewer hands is directly related to the increasing number of people going hungry every day. 

The Oakland Institute in the US recently stated that the first years of the 21st century will be remembered for a global land rush of nearly unprecedented scale [2].

An estimated 500 million acres, an area eight times the size of Britain, was reported bought or leased across the developing world between 2000 and 2011, often at the expense of local food security and land rights. This trend could eventually result in the permanent shift of farm ownership from family businesses to institutional investors and other consolidated corporate operations.

Monsanto in India

In India, small farms account for 92 percent of farms and occupy around 40 percent of all agricultural land. They form the bedrock of food production. However, there is a concerted effort to remove farmers from the land.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers have taken their lives since 1997 and many more are experiencing economic distress or have left farming as a result of debt, a shift to (GM) cash crops and economic liberalisation [3].

Monsanto already controls the cotton industry in India and is increasingly shaping agri-policy and the knowledge paradigm by funding agricultural research in public universities and institutes.

Its practices and colonisation of institutions have led to it being called the ‘contemporary East India Company’ [4], and regulatory bodies are now severely compromised and riddled with conflicts of interest where decision-making over GMOs are concerned [5].

In the meantime, Monsanto and the GM biotech sector forward the myth that GM food is necessary to feed the world’s burgeoning population. They are not.

Aside from the review by GRAIN, the World Bank-funded International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge and Science for Development Report stated that smallholder, traditional farming (not GMOs) can deliver food security in low-income countries through sustainable agri-ecological systems [5].

The Standing Committee on Agriculture in Parliament unequivocally concluded that GM seeds and foods are dangerous to human, animal and environmental health and directed the former Government of Manmohan Singh to ban GMOs [6].

Despite such evidence and the recommendations to put a hold on open field GM trials by the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee, the push is on within official circles to give such trials the green light.

Monsanto cannot be trusted

The GM biotech sector cannot be trusted. As its largest player, Monsanto is responsible for knowingly damaging people’s health and polluting the environment and is guilty of a catalogue of decades-long deceptive, duplicitous and criminal practices [7].

It has shown time and again its contempt for human life and the environment and that profit overrides any notion of service to the public, yet it continues to propagate the lie that it has humanity’s best interests at heart because its so-called GMO ‘frontier technology’ can feed the hungry millions.

The sector attempts to control the ‘science’ around its products by carrying out inadequate, secretive studies of its own, placing restrictions on any independent research into its products and censoring findings that indicate the deleterious impacts of its products [8].

It has also faked data [9] and engages in attacking scientists who reach conclusions not to its liking [10,11]. It cannot demonstrate that yields are better, nutritional values are improved, health is not damaged or that harm to the environment does not occur with the adoption of GMOs.

Independent studies and evidence, not inadequate industry funded or back ones, have indicated yields are often worse and herbicide use has increased [12,13,14], health is negatively impacted [15,16], soil is damaged [17] and biodiversity is undermined [18], among other things.

GRAIN found that around 56 percent of Russia’s agricultural output comes from family farms which occupy less than 9 percent of arable land. Russia does not need or want GM crops, which the Russian Prime Minister has described as amounting to little more than a form of biological warfare weapon [19]. And here lies the real heart of the matter.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that if you control oil you control nations, but if you control food you control people. GMOs are not needed to feed the world. Science cannot justify their use. They are a weapon.

In India, there is a drive to remove small/family farms, which are capable of ensuring the nation’s food security, and eventually replace them with larger biotech-controlled monoculture farms with GM crops for Western styled processed-food supermarkets and export [20].

It is no surprise that the likes of Syngenta, Monsanto and Walmart had a direct hand in drawing up the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture, which was in turn linked to the US sanctioning the opening up of India’s nuclear power sector.

Despite India not being a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, US corporations are now actively involved in helping India develop its civil nuclear capabilities. Payback appears to come in the form of handing over the control of India’s agricultural land and food system to the US via that country’s biotech companies.

GMOs and the bigger picture

Russia is correct to conflate bio-terror and GMOs. The oil-rich Rockefeller family set out to control global agriculture via the petrochemical-dependent ‘green revolution’. The destruction of traditional farmer-controlled agriculture was actively supported by the US government and its Trojan horse agritech corporations under the agenda set out by Kissinger.

GMOs now represent the ultimate stranglehold over food via ‘terminator’ seed technology, seed patenting and intellectual property rights.

Moreover, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Gates Foundation - which have teamed up with Monsanto in Africa - have long-standing concerns about overpopulation in ‘third world’ countries and how they could develop and threaten resources that the West has used to enrich itself with [21].

In fact, Monsanto now own the Epicyte gene, which causes sterility. What will be the ‘final solution’ for the likes of 600 million in India or millions in Africa or elsewhere who are to be removed from agriculture [22]? The eugenicists are knocking at the door.

Despite compliant politicians and officials in high places who seem hellbent on capitulating to Monsanto and the US, many recognise the dangers associated with GMOs and are working hard to resist their introduction. However, they are attacked and accused of slowing down growth because of their resistance to GMOs [23].

Certain activists and civil organisations are also accused of working against the national interest by colluding with foreign interests to undermine ‘development’. The hypocrisy is blindingly obvious: the state itself has for a long time been colluding with foreign interests to undermine the basis of traditional agriculture.

The political backing for GMOs by the US State Department, the strategic position of the US GM biotech sector in international trade agreements and the push to get GMOs into India and to contaminate agriculture via open-field trials with the compliance of key officials and official bodies does not bode well.

Independence is much more than military might, patriotic slogans and a self-congratulatory media-induced frenzy on a designated day each year. In terms of GMOs, Russia is aware of this. It is actively committed to putting the GMO genie back in the bottle [24]. Why isn’t India?
“It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity … The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future? … A new star rises, the star of freedom in the east, a new hope comes into being, a vision long cherished materialises. May the star never set and that hope never be betrayed!” Jawaharlal Nehru from his “tryst with destiny” speech at Parliament House in New Delhi in 1947.

About the author

Originally from the northwest of England, Colin Todhunter has spent many years in India. He has written extensively for the Bangalore-based Deccan Herald, New Indian Express and Morning Star (Britain). His articles have also appeared in many other newspapers, journals and books. His East by Northwest site is at:

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Massive Global Climate Change Mobilisation - 21 September 2014

Global warming protest, Stockholm, Sweden. The...
Stockholm, the sign says "Warning: climate chaos" (Wikipedia)
by The Avaaz Team

Dear friends,

The last ice age happened in 6 months. 6 months for the planet to unleash an army of apartment-building-size ice blocks across Europe and the United States.

It was a climate tipping point where the balance is knocked completely out of control and threatened the survival of everything - and three more tipping points exactly like it are on the verge of happening.

It's our "holy shit" climate moment according to a leading NASA scientist, and only a holy shit massive coordinated day of action response, right now, can change the future we're facing.

One agreement with common-sense steps to end dirty energy can save us.

That's why the UN has called an urgent climate meeting in just over 100 days with all major world leaders - if we greet them on September 21st with the largest ever global climate mobilisation in history we can break through the walls of mega coal, oil, and business that prevent even the best politicians from doing what is right.

There's no way to get around how big a task this is. But together, each small action will add up into a millions-strong movement that literally drowns out the opposition and gives our leaders the best reason to break free and build a hopeful, clean and green future. Click below to join in:

"Tipping points" are feedback loops, where climate change feeds back on itself and causes rapidly accelerating, catastrophic consequences.

Right now, methane gas that is 25 times worse for global warming than CO2 is frozen in our ice. But as the ice melts, the gas leaks, causing more melting and each melt loses us another layer of reflective ice shield that we rely on to keep the planet cool, more methane and less ice means more warming still, and everything starts to spin out of control.

And that's just one example … it's why scientists are yelling from the rooftops that we have to act now.

We actually have the tools and the plan we need to make sure we don't cross into a world where tipping points destroy us. And while it will take global cooperation on a bigger scale than ever before, our 36 million-strong movement already has the people power necessary to move leaders from every country to take the first steps.

Just days ago, the United States and China announced serious new plans to curb their pollution - momentum is building ahead of next year's critical Paris climate summit where a deal could be inked, and in just over 100 days we can take it up a notch further.

Taking to the streets in a record setting show of power and coordination is one of the most effective ways to create change - from the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa to civil rights in the US, it's sometimes been the only way.

This is our chance to bring that power to the most important issue of our time: survival and a thriving future for our families, and their families and the generations of people to come. Click below to be a part of it all:

We know we can do this … and do it big. When our community was just 3 million people we held 3,000 actions on the same day to protect our planet. We're now 36 million strong, ten times the size! Imagine what we can achieve together now ...

With so much hope for our future,

Emma, Iain, Lisa, Ricken, Alice, Emily, Sayeeda, Uilleam and the rest of the Avaaz team.


Global warming: it's a point of no return in West Antarctica. What happens next? (The Guardian):

A Call to Arms: An Invitation to Demand Action on Climate Change (Rolling Stone):

Mini ice age took hold of Europe in months (New Scientist):

Report: Prepare for climate tipping points (Politico): is a 38-million-person global campaign network
that works to ensure that the views and values of the world's people shape global decision-making. ("Avaaz" means "voice" or "song" in many languages).

Avaaz members live in every nation of the world; our team is spread across 18 countries on 6 continents and operates in 17 languages. Learn about some of Avaaz's biggest campaigns here, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.