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As the climate warms and catastrophic wildfires become more common, land managers are seeking ways to reduce the risk of forest fires while maintaining forest health. A new pilot plan in Arizona hopes to accomplish this goal by selectively cutting some of the trees in the forest—a strategy known as forest thinning – and selling the felled timber as wood chips to South Korean buyers. It seems like a win-win solution: the forests are preserved, and communities gain some fire safety and make some money in the process. How does it work?

Besides climate change, the general consensus, according to Sharon Hood and her colleagues, writing in the journal Ecological Application, is that the growth in catastrophic fires stems from decades of overzealous fire suppression. Without fire, too many trees survive and grow. Old and young trees cram unnaturally close together, making forests more vulnerable not only to severe fire, but to disease and pest infestation. Infestations can kill trees, resulting in more dry fuel, and an even greater risk of catastrophic fire.

Working in Ponderosa Pine forests, in western Montana, Sharon Hood and her colleagues examined how different fire treatments affected the forest’s ability to withstand infestation by the mountain pine beetle, a pest that can leave huge swaths of trees dead—and susceptible to fire. In the densely packed forests that had not burned recently, pine beetles killed as many as 50% of trees. The researchers wanted to test whether forest thinning, controlled burning, or a combination of both might prevent beetle infestations and increase overall fire resistance.

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Simply burning the forest helped control beetles, but not much. In areas exposed only to fire, tree mortality was lower than in unburned forests, but still quite high. However, when forests were thinned, or thinned in combination with burning, tree deaths from pine beetle infestation declined almost to zero. Thinning alone, and thinning and burning together, were so successful that even forest already coping with a beetle outbreak became fire resistant.

If left unburned or unthinned, beetle attacks eventually shifted the entire character of the forest by shifting the dominant tree species. Thinning, then, can help to reduce the risk of severe fire not only by reducing the dangerous fuel buildup in unburned forests, but by helping the forest resist beetle infestation and the increased fire risk that infestation brings.

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The conclusion is that at least in the short term, proper forest thinning has the potential to drastically reduce not only fire danger but other threats as well. Hood and colleagues note that while thinning is highly effective in the short term, in the long term, forest health requires the restoration of a normal fire regime. If tree density isn’t maintained at a natural level, the whole process will need to be repeated.

Thinning needs to be done properly. It should not be an excuse for backdoor logging, as removal of older, mature trees is not as helpful as removing the smaller trees that fuel massive fires. The scheme to sell the thinned wood as chips is kind of genius, as the small scrubby trees being thinned have little value for anything else. One caveat is that the chips will be burned as fuel, so from a carbon storage perspective, the solution is not ideal. On the other hand, if the trees would have burned in a fire anyway, maybe that doesn’t matter.Featured image by: BLM Nevada

This article was originally published on JSTOR Daily, written by James MacDonald , and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

A new study has shown that campaigns to plant large numbers of trees could have the opposite intended effect and may threaten natural forests, illustrating the need to analyse and reassess subsidies in such schemes. 

The research, published in Nature Sustainability, reveals how initiatives like the global Trillion Trees campaign and others that are under consideration by the US Congress could lead to more biodiversity loss with little climate change mitigation. However, the researchers say that these efforts could prove useful if they include strong subsidy restrictions, such as banning the replacement of native forests with tree plantations.  

Eric Lambin, the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and co-author of the study, says, “If policies to incentivise tree plantations are poorly designed or poorly enforced, there is a high risk of not only wasting public money but also releasing more carbon and losing biodiversity.”

Forests are undoubtedly a way to slow biodiversity loss and mitigate the climate crisis through its carbon sequestering abilities, and tree-planting has gained a lot more attention in recent years with ambitious commitments, such as the Bonn Challenge, which seeks to restore an area of forest more than eight times the size of California by 2030, and Trillion Trees, which, as the name suggests, seeks to plant a trillion trees. 

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Negative Effects of Planting Trees

However, these initiatives have deep flaws. Nearly 80% of commitments to the Bonn Challenge involve planting monoculture tree plantations or a limited mix of trees that produce products such as fruit and rubber rather than actually restoring natural forests. These plantations typically have less potential for carbon sequestering, habitat creation and erosion control than natural forests. These potential harms are further amplified if planted trees replace natural forests, grasslands or savannas that have evolved to support local biodiversity.

The researchers also looked at subsidies designed to encourage private landowners to plant trees. Specifically, the scientists looked at Chile’s Decree Law 701, one of the world’s longest running and most influential afforestation subsidy laws in effect from 1974 to 2012, which is currently being considered for reintroduction. We must reflect on the environmental and economic impact of past policies that might occur when paying landowners (who often have their own agendas) to establish these tree plantations.

The law subsidised 75% of afforestation costs and provided support for ongoing plantation management. However, careless enforcement and budgetary limitations failed to address prohibitions on the use of subsidies on already-forested lands, leading to situations in which the government unintentionally subsidised the replacement of native forests with profitable tree plantations. The subsidies further reduced native forest cover by encouraging plantations on shrublands or marginal agricultural lands where forests might have naturally generated. 

Further, the researchers calculated the effects of the subsidies on net carbon and biodiversity changes across the country. They found that relative to a scenario of no subsidies, afforestation payments expanded the area covered by trees, but decreased the area of native forests. This shows that the subsidies failed to increase carbon storage and further accelerated biodiversity losses, since Chile’s native forests are more carbon dense and biodiverse than plantations. In this way, schemes to plant trees may actually threaten natural forests.

Cristian Echeverría, a professor at the University of Concepción in Chile and coauthor of the study, says, “Nations should design and enforce their forest subsidy policies to avoid the undesirable ecological impacts that resulted from Chile’s program. Future subsidies should seek to promote the recovery of the many carbon and biodiversity-rich natural ecosystems that have been lost.”

The continued use of wood – derived biomass could result in a potential 30% increase in worldwide forest cover — more than a billion hectares (2.5 billion acres) — by the year 2100, according to a new research paper. The researchers say their calculations show that all that’s needed are the right incentives, higher values on products, and stricter forest management.

The outcome of the study is the idea that providing a competitive financial incentive is one factor in encouraging the reforestation of areas where wood has been cut for biomass. For instance, if wood can earn harvesters more money than a replacement crop, such as palm for oil, then they would be more inclined to replant trees or afforest other areas, thus leading to an increase, over time, of overall forest cover.

Other factors like intensive forest management can result in the faster regrowth of areas of newly planted trees.

“We calculate that for every 1% increase in timber price, the area of plantations increases by 0.32% globally,” the report said.

The European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) considers the use of wood biomass to be a carbon-neutral form of renewable energy because in theory, wood waste releases carbon as it naturally breaks down anyway, and therefore wood pellets are no more of a carbon pest.

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forest cover wood biomass
Wood pellets are a less efficient energy source than coal, meaning they actually release more CO2 into the atmosphere per megawatt of electricity produced.

But critics argue that whole trees end up being cut to make wood pellets instead, and concerns have been raised that the time it takes to replant forests used for biomass is too long, which reduces the forest cover and negates an area’s ability to act as a carbon sink.

Last year, six plaintiffs from across Europe and the U.S. filed a suit against the EU, alleging that the conversion from coal- to wood-pellet burning was having a disastrous effect on the atmosphere, because the reduced forest cover combined with newly planted trees do not grow fast enough to absorb carbon.

The new study comes just months after the COP25 climate summit in December, when Michael Norton, the program director of the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC), warned against “waiting for new trees to grow while pumping additional carbon into the atmosphere by burning trees for energy.”

At the same summit, Will Gardiner, the CEO of wood pellet firm Drax, insisted that “a managed forest that keeps growing continues to capture more carbon.”

Speaking to Mongabay by phone, Adam Daigneault, one of the study’s co-authors and an assistant professor of forest, conservation and recreation policy at the University of Maine, stressed that the study was “not saying that this is a perfect cure all, because if you’re killing all incentives to have biomass removed … you actually get more forest loss.”

“Yes, it’s not perfect, but you’re at least retaining some forest as forest that might not otherwise be there,” he added.

Daigneault said it’s important to note that increased demand for biomass would not reduce logging; “It will go up,” he said. However, in the long run, the adjustment of prices for timber for biomass could mean that “the land is worth more as trees than something else.”

A statement from the University of Maine that accompanied the release of the report said the researchers used a global timber model to assess and compare bioenergy demands and timber harvesting in more than 200 forests in 16 different regions.

“While policy approaches vary on the regional level, their modelling analysis of the forest carbon rental payment approach indicates that forest area will increase substantially across the globe, with medium price scenarios leading to 500 million to 700 million new hectares of forests,” the statement said.

Asked if the billion-hectare projection was reasonable, Daigneault said it was achievable because “the model assumes that you have proper institutions … and proper knowledge” of forest management.

He pointed to South America as one region where he has anecdotally observed an increase in monoculture tree plantations, and said that, globally, the number of new tree plantations has “doubled” over the past 30 years.

“Incentivizing both wood-based bioenergy and forest sequestration could increase carbon sequestration and conserve natural forests simultaneously,” the researchers said in the abstract of the report. “We conclude that the expanded use of wood for bioenergy will result in net carbon benefits, but an efficient policy also needs to regulate forest carbon sequestration.”

The report does say, however, that while higher timber prices can incentivize afforestation, they also “encourage harvesting of natural forest areas.” In addition, the model only projects an increase in total carbon sequestration when the demand for woody biomass exceeds 1.1 billion cubic meters per year by the year 2100.

Mary Booth, an ecosystem scientist and the director of the nonprofit Partnership for Policy Integrity, described the study as a “disaster” that is being spun “as a positive story.”

“Every one of their scenarios shows a massive loss in natural forest area relative to the baseline,” Booth said in reference to the report’s graph projections. “They are projecting up to 250-million hectare loss in natural forests; whereas natural forests are the best defence against climate change. They are proposing that we should just tear them all up and replace them with plantations.”

In reality, she told Mongabay in an interview, replacement plantations are poor substitutes for the existing carbon sinks — both above and below ground — in natural forests, and “you would completely lose the ecosystems” in them, too.

“I say that if you want to start saving carbon right away, [natural forests] are already doing an amazing job soaking up carbon,” Booth said.

Booth, who advised the plaintiffs in the biomass case against the EU, pointed to Latvia and Slovakia as countries where incentivized wood bioenergy policies have resulted in massive carbon storage losses. In the U.S., she said, similar losses have also been reported in southern forests, where “what we see is a loss in carbon.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Lauren Crothers, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

Earth.Org analysed satellite data to assess the changes in vegetation and land cover in the Mu Us desert in North-western China from 1985 to 2018. Images from Google Earth Engine were used to illustrate the changes in this 42 000 sq km area. 

China is severely affected by desertification, a process caused by arable land and grassland degradation, and in the context of global warming, the expansion of erosion-induced drylands. More than a quarter of the country is covered in desert, with degraded land spanning 8- 10 million kms of the country and responsible for economic losses amounting to US$ 6.9 billion a year. 

As a result of this degradation, the desert area is expanding at a rate of 2100 kms every year, affecting nearly 400 million people in China. Winds blow the sand towards neighbouring land which envelopes the fertile soil, degrading its fertility by shutting off its water and air supply.

A study conducted by Wang et. al in 2017 said that while the key driving forces of desertification in arid Asia (Northeast Asia to Central and West Asia) are poorly misunderstood, the Mu Us desert is an area where human activity is usually considered to be a key driving force of desertification. 

The Mu Us desert used to be grazing land; the climate is wetter than most deserts in the world, with annual precipitation of 440mm in the southeast, and 250mm in the west. Therefore, it is an area of interest in China’s curbing of desertification as the desert has suitable conditions for vegetation rehabilitation. 

The images below coincide with policies implemented from 1999 to convert farming land back to forest and grazing land back to grassland. Additionally, the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Project started in 1979 consisted of a series of human-planted windbreaking forest strips in China designed to hold back the expansion of the Gobi Desert. 

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Mu Us Desert Map: Afforestation in Yulin

The image above shows the changes of Yulin, a city at the southern edge of the desert, and surroundings in 1985, 2001 and 2018. Urban areas have been expanded, and the neighbouring lands are almost completely covered with vegetation. The grey area is the city of Yulin. Other dark green patches are trees or bushes and the bright yellow is moving sand, while the dimmer yellow is sand covered with herbs. In the 2018 picture, the darkest green on the west and northwest of Yulin are forests. 

People living in Yulin, as well as Beijing and Hebei, are reporting less sandstorm weather; Mu Us is a major sand source powering the sandstorms in Beijing. 

The featured image illustrates afforestation efforts in the Mu Us desert. Bright yellow areas illustrate sand and dark brownish-green areas are vegetation. The surrounding areas are significantly greener. 

China has been working to control this process of degradation, which can be blamed on a combination of environmental and human factors, with several projects working on measures including afforestation, a process involving planting trees in barren lands so as to create forests. According to Wang et. al’s study, high levels of desertification occurred in the 1970s, and from the early 2000s to the present, rehabilitation has occurred in most regions of arid Asia, especially in China. 

To optimise these afforestation programmes, a study conducted by Lu et. al in 2015 suggested choosing species of plants with the maximum water-use efficiency that could alleviate the conflict between environmental water needs and human needs. Specifically, project managers should seek to restore the natural grassland vegetation in arid and semiarid areas. However, this may prove difficult in afforestation areas where trees have already lowered the water table to the point where the vegetation will struggle to survive. The study also notes the importance of developing optimised groundwater use schemes to use the resource sustainably.

Another strategy that China has employed in controlling desertification includes the straw checkerboard method, used for fixing sand dunes. Straws of wheat, rice, reeds, and other materials are placed in the shape of a checkerboard. Half is buried in the sand and the other half is exposed. The straw decreases the wind velocity near the ground surface and can prevent wind erosion of the soil. In regions where the annual precipitation is over 200 mm, bushes and herbs can be planted to further improve the windbreak and sand dune fixation qualities. After establishment, the straw gradually rots to become organic soil matter.

China continues to show its commitment to curbing the potentially devastating and far-reaching effects of desertification through various projects that aim to not only rehabilitate degraded land, but empower communities and ensure the long-term economic growth of the territory. 

The largest mangrove forest in the world in the Sundarbans is shrinking. A new coal power plant might wreak havoc on the already vulnerable region.

The Sundarbans: The World’s Largest Mangrove Forest 

The Sundarbans- the largest continuous mangrove forest on the planet that spans more than 10 000 sq km along the Bay of Bengal- is shrinking. Thanks to human encroachment and climate change, the forest has been losing almost 16 sq km of vegetation per year since 1991.  Earth.Org’s own analysis based on satellite imagery shows that in Bangladesh, home to the largest swath of Sundarbans mangroves, the forest has lost 442 sq km of its vegetation in the last 28 years. 71% of the forested coastline is also retreating by as much as 200 metres a year due to coastline erosion. 

Containing multiple UNESCO Natural World Heritage sites within itself, the Sundarbans forest is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species. The flora is comprised of a rich mosaic of different types of vegetation; half of all known 110 mangrove species are found within the delta. It is home to over 260 bird species, Indian otters, spotted deer, wild boar, fiddler crabs, mud crabs, three marine lizard species and five marine turtle species dwell in this impervious maze. The forest also hosts endangered species like the estuarine crocodile, Indian python and the iconic Bengal tiger. The mangrove ecosystem plays an indispensable role as breeding and nursery ground coastal fisheries in the Bay of Bengal. 

The Sundarbans is also a natural barrier that protects over 6.5 million people who live in the region from tides and cyclones. For the inhabitants of surrounding areas, the forest is an abundant source of subsistence. 

Human interference in the form of upstream agriculture, industrial shrimp farming, logging and hydrologic interventions have been gradually deteriorating the mangrove ecosystem. 

Active human encroachment is coupled with the collateral effects of the climate crisis.  The forested coastline is being rapidly overtaken by rising sea levels and storm surges. The increased salinity of the soil has made hectares of mangroves weaker and more vulnerable to retrenchment. Scientists warn that a continuing coastline retreat will trigger major mangrove disappearance within the next 50 years. 

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Earth.Org used NASA’s Landsat satellite data to generate images to analyse the changes in vegetation in Sunderbans.

A new threat 

Construction of a new cross-border coal-fired power plant is underway in the nearby town of Rampal. Despite strong opposition from UNESCO, the 1320-megawatt plant is set to start generating power by March 2021. 

Leading conservationists argue the power plant would spew thousands of tons of toxic coal ash and air pollutants, and discharge mercury-laden water at varying temperature into rivers, damaging water quality.

“Despite objections from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Bangladesh has approved more than 320 industrial projects in the area, including the massive Rampal coal-fired power plant, bypassing requirements for public participation and environmental impact assessment,” says United Nations (UN) expert John H. Knox

Preservation of Mangrove Forest in Sunderbans

The bilateral cooperation between Bangladesh and India and the Ramsar Convention had improved conservation strategies at the Sunderbans in the last decade. But experts say it is highly critical to avoid human pressure on the wetland and its resources in the future too. Both governments need to take environmental concerns into account while installing industrial projects near the mangrove forest.  

Governments should invest towards agricultural techniques that mitigate damage caused by environmental changes and by the encroaching threat of the fossil fuel industry. Traditional practices endemic to the region can adapt to periodic ecosystem disruptions, such as rising sea levels or waterlogging. An example includes a practice in Bangladesh of implementing floating cultivation systems that utilise soilless beds made from seaweed. Sustainable and regionally traditional agriculture can significantly increase the market value of commodities. If traditional and sustainable agriculture becomes the norm in the region, the value of commodities will rise and revenue from foreign markets will increase substantially. With more diversified revenue streams, the state can justify the higher cost of implementing renewable energy infrastructure rather than allowing the region to become reliant on fossil fuels.

Alibaba, the world’s largest fintech company, is using Alipay to tap into mobile games to fight desertification, greening China in the process.

China’s Gobi desert–the fastest growing desert on the planet–transforms more than 3600 kilometers of grasslands into inhospitable wastelands every year. Its expansion has eaten away hectares of agricultural lands and human habitats besides creating unbridled sandstorms that batter cities located near its edge. The Chinese government has been fighting the desertification with ambitious programs like ‘the great green wall’ creating a 4500 km tree belt on the edge of the Gobi, where more than 66 billion trees have been planted so far.  

Now an app called Ant Forest by the world’s largest financial technology company Ant Financial Services Group (Alipay) is sweeping across China rewarding its millions of users for their low-carbon lifestyle by planting trees on behalf of them to stop the desertification. Ant Forest rewards its users with green energy points for choosing low-carbon activities like taking public transportation, recycling waste, using less plastic, etc. Once users have earned enough points, they can plant a virtual tree in the app. For every single tree planted in this app, Alipay plants a tree near the Gobi desert.

Unlike traditional government-led forestation campaigns, Ant Forest is highly interactive and transparent. Users can choose different types of drought-resistant plants based on the number of points they earned, and monitor the growth of their trees in real time using satellite imagery. They can also share or pool their points with their friends to plant a bigger tree.

Alipay has partnered up with conservation groups like China Green Foundation (CGF) and the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology (SEE) to materialise the tree plantation drive. 

Over 500 million people–more than 6% of the world’s total population–have signed up for the app while Alipay has so far planted over 100 million real trees in Inner Mongolia and Gansu province, which share borders with the Gobi desert. The newly planted trees cover over 1000 sq km–an area almost the size of Hong Kong. The users’ behaviour changes and low-carbon lifestyle have reduced carbon emissions by more than three million tons so far.  

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How the World's Largest Fintech Company is Greening China

How the World’s Largest Fintech Company is Greening China

How the World's Largest Fintech Company is Greening China

How the World’s Largest Fintech Company is Greening China

Screenshots of Ant Forest

Experts say that Alipay has gamified carbon footprint tracking and mitigation making sustainable living fun for millions of people in China. The app has tapped into the addictive nature of mobile games to reduce China’s carbon emissions.  

“Emerging digital technologies are enabling a bottom-up approach to the battle–avoiding greenhouse gas emissions gram by gram, bus fare by bus fare, day by day,” says Ant Forest’s Chief Executive Officer Eric Jing. “This is essential to complement top-down action, such as the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda on sustainable development. The success of the programme is a sign of the powerful change we can create when people are provided with the opportunity to live a greener life.”

Ant Forest has received high praise from conservationists across the world for their innovative approach. “This (the app) shows that digital finance holds a huge untapped power to mobilise people in support of sustainable development and the fight against climate change,” says Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment. “And this power is literally at our fingertips through our mobile devices.” 

According to a 1982 regulation, every Chinese citizen aged above 11 is legally obliged to plant three to five trees every year. Now, a large number of people use Ant Forest to fulfill their obligations. The app, which is now officially recognised by the National Afforestation Commission (NAC), allows users to apply for the certificate issued by NAC.

China has been tackling its increasing carbon footprint with aggressive afforestation, and Ant Forest’s digital clout is helping the country to achieve its 2035 target of increasing its forest cover by 26%. 

Cargill, one of the world’s top agricultural commodity trading houses, has warned that global companies will not meet their UN Climate Summit goal of halting the conversion of forests into farmland by next year and it has urged stakeholders to rethink the relationship between forests, farmers, and local communities.

More than 50 companies including Cargill, McDonald’s, Nestlé and Walmart, had endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests back in 2014.  Their pledge at a UN Climate Summit that year set the goal of eliminating deforestation from the production process and value chain of agricultural commodities like soya beans, palm oil, paper, and beef by 2020.

Cargill Chairman and CEO Dave MacLennan said that the food industry might fail to reach the goal.

“Despite our collective efforts, industry is poised to fall short of a 2020 goal to eliminate deforestation in key supply chains, including beef, soy and palm oil,” he said in a blog post.  “That is hard for me to admit – but it is not a reason to stop taking critical action.”

Cargill and other agricultural commodity groups exert massive influence in rural areas across the globe by being the chief purchasers of bulk crops such as soyabeans and corn, with their decisions swaying farmers’ planting decisions.

“Our company, industry and organisations around the world need to do more,” MacLennan said. “We need to move faster. And we need to act together.”

Pointing to the alarming rate of deforestation in The Cerrado, a tropical savanna ecoregion of Brazil, he called for a collective action to protect local ecosystems. “We must end deforestation in a way that protects forests and native vegetation while simultaneously allowing farmers and communities to prosper,” he said.

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The Cerrado biome, originally covering more than 2 million square kilometers, has been reduced by more than half as soy production rapidly replaces native vegetation.

The Cerrado is home to vast range of plant and animal biodiversity. But it is also home to millions of people who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Agriculture in the region had increased by 87 % between 2000 and 2015, according to the Brazilian research institute IPAM. The latest government figures show more than 6,600 sq km of native vegetation vanished in 2017-18.

A latest progress report  from Cargill stated the company had sourced 37.4% of its Brazilian soyabeans from The Cerrado so far.

MacLennan maintained that addressing deforestation in Brazil’s soybean farming was different from that of palm oil in south-east Asia. “We’ve learned that solutions (for deforestation) are seldom simple or universal.” he said. “The changes we’ve implemented in our palm supply chain, for example, will not work in the soy supply chain, where the industry is more fragmented and the farming economics are drastically different.”

He added that balancing the needs of forests, farmers and communities is a challenge that cannot be solved by any one company alone. “Cargill has been focused on creating sustainable supply chains for many years. Our experience has shown us that we are only successful when everyone involved in the supply chain works together,” he said.

Cargill, which had $3.1bn in net income last year, has pledged $30m to help farmers and conserve protect forests across the globe.

“We will convene the best and brightest minds to identify innovative solutions to end deforestation, starting with the soy industry in Brazil.” MacLennan said.

The first ever global analysis of plant extinction found that over 570 species of plants have gone extinct in the last 250 years. Researchers believe even these numbers underestimate the true levels of the ongoing extinction.

571 plant species have completely disappeared from Earth in the last 250 years- more than twice the number of bird, mammal and amphibian species to have gone extinct in the same period combined.

The extinction rate is 500 times greater now than before the industrial revolution. The study was conducted by a team of researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Stockholm University.

The pattern of extinction of plants is strikingly similar to that of animals, though it doesn’t seem to be based on evolutionary patterns, as it is with the latter.

The majority of plant extinctions occurred in biodiversity ‘hotspots’ in the Tropics and the Mediterranean, including places like Australia, India, and Hawaii. Of all the extinct plant species numbered throughout the world, half were once found on islands and 18 percent once flourished in the Pacific.

“This probably reflects the high proportion of unique species (endemics) in island biotas and their vulnerability to biological invasion,” the authors suggest. “Consistent with this, we found that extinct species have narrower ranges than seed plants as a whole. We also found that most extinct plants were woody perennials and from the wet tropics or subtropics.”

Why do plants go extinct?

Many new plant species might also be headed for extinction because of habitat loss, climate change, and human exploitation. Around a third of the 90,000 species the team analysed could be considered threatened in some way.

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The Saint Helena olive, Nesiota elliptica, first discovered in 1805. It went extinct in 2003.
Photograph: Kew Gardens

To reach these conclusions, the researchers scoured every journal and plant database at their disposal, beginning with a 1753 compendium by pioneering botanist Carl Linnaeus and ending with the regularly updated IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which maintains a comprehensive list of endangered and extinct plants and animals around the world. After combining and cross-checking the various extinction reports, the team compared the results to the natural or “background” extinction rates for plants, which a 2014 study calculated to be between 0.05 and 0.35 extinctions per million species per year.

Despite the gloomy outlook for planet Earth, the study does provide a glimmer of hope. The team found that 430 plant species which were thought to have gone extinct were rediscovered in the period they investigated. However, it should be noted that 90 percent of these rediscovered plants have a high extinction risk.

Researchers called for a number of measures to stop plant extinction: recording all the plants across the world, supporting herbaria, which preserve plant specimens for posterity, supporting botanists who carry out vital research, and teaching our children to see and recognise local plants. “We urge botanists to compile data on search effort, species density, abundance and detectability and to engage local people in the search for their missing biodiversity.” the authors say. “Such efforts will improve our understanding of genuine extinctions and help target future conservation action.”

Featured image: An artist’s rendering of extinct plant Sigillaria

Two-thirds of Earth’s 242 longest rivers are no longer free-flowing due to human activities, a study mapping over 12 million kms of watercourses reveals. 

Why are free-flowing rivers important?

Besides dams and reservoirs, activities like water extraction and sediment trapping disrupt rivers’ natural flow. Free-flowing rivers feed hundreds of millions of people, deliver sediments crucial to agriculture and mitigate the impact of floods and droughts. River fragmentation and alteration threaten vital ecosystems for people and wildlife.

This groundbreaking study by hydrologists from McGill University, published in Nature, is the first comprehensive global assessment of the connectivity of Earth’s largest rivers. Scientific wisdom postulates that free-flowing rivers must remain connected across four dimensions: longitudinally, so that fish and other species can move upstream while water, nutrients, and sediments can move downstream; laterally, so the river can move out onto its floodplain, delivering important nutrients to fish in other habitats and bringing nutrients back into the river itself; vertically, so the river can flow into and interact with groundwater and aquifers; and seasonally, so that the important ecological functions rivers provide over time are not impaired — for example, the flood pulses that signal fish to spawn.

Using satellite imagery and hydrological modelling, researchers mapped over 12 million kilometers of watercourses worldwide.  The team identified indicators at the global scale that measured any of the four ways of river connectivity. Measurements showed how the presence of dams affects longitudinal, lateral, and seasonal components of connectivity. Roads and urban areas built in flood plains also disrupted lateral connectivity.

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Figure 1 River connectivity of global rivers threatened by the five dominant pressures: DOF (degree of regulation), SED (sediment trapping), USE (consumptive water use) and URB (urban areas) (Source: Grill et al. 2019)

Data analysis revealed that river fragmentation, flow regulation, sedimentation, water consumption, and urbanisation were the five dominant constraints rivers face worldwide. Only rivers in remote regions like the Arctic and the Amazon rainforest were found to have remained untouched and could flow unimpeded along its entire course. In densely populated areas only a few very long rivers remain free-flowing, such as the Irrawaddy in Myanmar and the Salween in China.

There are over 2.8 million large and small dams constructed around the world; these are the leading cause of river fragmentation. Dams, intentionally designed to impede river flow, not only alter terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity by preventing species migration, but also accelerate the shrinking of downstream river deltas and expose low-lying regions to increased flood risk by preventing the exchange of sediments.

This study adds to growing evidence highlighting how human activities are fundamentally changing the natural landscape and the water cycle. With more than 3,700 dams in the works and the pace of hydropower development accelerating around the world, the ecological consequences of dams should push us to develop an energy system that minimises negative impacts on our ecosystem. The results of this study, freely available in an interactive map portal, should serve as a wake-up call to policymakers, engineers, and planners and encourage them to redesign the infrastructure development projects.

Life in and around a river evolves and is conditioned by free-flowing water. A dam disrupts life.

The best way forward is to adopt nature-based solutions (NbS), which are defined as ‘actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits’. Countries should embrace NbS like floodplain restoration, ecological engineering, and integrated water resources management to ensure river flow connectivity and protect the ecosystem.

Removing dams is another way to restore the rivers. A dam removal movement has already started in the US, where about 1,500 dams have been removed. Support for river restoration through dam demolition is also growing in Europe and Japan.  A project called Dam Removal Europe focuses on clearing rivers of the 30,000 old or obsolete dams that still exist across Europe. These projects should be embarked upon more widely to ensure the protection and longevity of Earth’s last free-flowing rivers.

Forests in Southeast Asia have faced extensive deforestation in recent decades. Socioeconomic pathways of Southeast Asian countries will decide the fate of their forests.

Millions of hectares of once-lush, intact forests in Southeast Asia have given way to agriculture. If deforestation continues at the current pace, experts say, over half of the existing biodiversity in the region would disappear by the year 2100.

Scientists argue that the future of deforestation in Southeast Asia’s forests depends on the socioeconomic pathways the countries in the region will adopt. A group of researchers has boiled the future of forests in the region down to a few likely scenarios called Shared Socioeconomic Pathway (SSP) These scenario projections largely depend on the willingness of local governments to adopt and enforce effective climate change mitigation measures to protect the commons.

Southeast Asia’s forests, from 2005 to 2015, have lost over 80 million hectares—one-third—causing a loss of 4.5% of Aboveground Forest Carbon Stocks (AFCS). Indonesia and Malaysia are leading the way for forest clearance and land conversions to agriculture and palm oil plantations. 

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Maps showing the spatially allocated projected forest cover changes in Southeast Asia under the five shared socioeconomic pathways (SSPs) (2015–2050). The four insets show the spatially allocated projected forest cover changes in some parts of Laos and Vietnam (inset 1), Cambodia (inset 2), Malaysia (inset 3) and Indonesia (inset 4)

The group, scientists from the National Institute for Environmental Studies, the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, the University of Tsukuba in Japan and the European Commission Joint Research Centre in Italy, published their findings in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

The first scenario, SSP 1, assumes inclusive development and respect for perceived environmental boundaries, as well as high investment in human capital, education, and awareness. Conversely, SSP 3 presents a polar opposite dimension that assumes fragmentation, comparatively weak global institutions and a lack of cooperation in addressing global environmental concerns, together with poor investments in education and awareness.

Based on their projections, researchers found that SSP1— the green road scenario—would yield the greatest net forest cover increase of 9.5% (19.6 million hectares) and an 8% increase in AFCS by 2050.  SSP3— the pessimist path—would cause the greatest net forest cover loss of 2.5% (5.2 million hectares) and a 4% decrease in AFCS by the same year.  Southeast Asia could lose over 39,000 hectares of intact forests and 580,000 hectares of protected forests under SSP3. Intact forests are better at storing carbon as compared to degraded forests. The protected forest areas are also important reserves of tropical biodiversity.

Hectares of once-lush, intact forests in the Sambas District, Indonesia have given way to palm oil plantations
Photo by Wakx is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

For this study, the researchers constructed a spatiotemporal model of forest cover change in Southeast Asia from 2015 to 2050. They used the European Space Agency’s Climate Change Initiative (ESA-CCI) land cover maps as their data source to detect forest cover changes from the recent past to the present. Their research method was built on a state-of-the-art spatially explicit, pattern-based land change modeling approach, and employed the Land Change Modeler (LCM), which is available in a software package called TerrSet. Their approach included three major parts: forest cover change quantification, transition potential modeling, and forest cover change spatial allocation.

Based on their findings, the authors urge Southeast Asian countries to strive towards the SSP1 pathway encouraging policymakers and businesses in the region to work together to drive inclusive economic growth aligned with the UN sustainable development goals.

Initiatives like the New York Declaration on Forests and the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) can provide the fertile policy framework to boost restoration in the region.

There are reasons to be optimistic. “The awareness that government leaders and their respective peoples have of various global environmental issues, including deforestation and its widespread consequences, has undoubtedly increased in the last few decades,” the paper says. “Arguably, all of these things can have a significant impact on forest protection, conservation, and expansion, sustaining the likelihood of SSP 1—the sustainability scenario.”

 

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