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Ecosystem services are defined as the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being, and have an impact on our survival and quality of life. There are four types of ecosystem services: provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting services.

The term “ecosystem services” is a relatively new one, first used to ascertain the value of nature to bring attention to environmental degradation. In 1997, Constanza et al. estimated that ecosystems provided on average US$33 trillion per year in services, compared to the global GNP at the time being $18 trillion per year. However, more recent estimates in 2011 suggest that ecosystems actually provide the equivalent of $125 trillion in services per year. Our growing understanding of the true worth of nature is worrying when set against the degradation ecosystems face.

4 Types of Ecosystem Services

1. Provisioning Services

Provisioning services are characterised by the ability of humans to obtain products from ecosystems, such as food, water and resources, including wood, oil and genetic resources and medicines. 

2. Regulating Services

Regulating services are categorised as any benefit obtained from the natural processes and functioning of ecosystems. Examples include climate regulation, flood regulation and other natural hazard regulation, pollination, water purification and more. For example, natural water purification services in Europe are valued at an estimated €33 billion per year. Further, pollination by wind and insects is a service that would not be possible without nature, particularly bees, as discussed in another one of our articles on the climate crisis and bees.

You might also like: Using Ecosystem Services as an Alternative to Reforestation: NYC’s Newtown Creek

3. Cultural Services

Cultural services include non-material benefits that people can obtain from ecosystems. These include spiritual enrichment, intellectual development, recreation and aesthetic values. These types of services can be hard to monitor and value compared to regulating and provisioning services, but research in this area is growing. For example, studies have shown that an ability to see or interact with nature, through hospital windows or hospital gardens respectively, increases the speed of patient recovery.

4. Supporting Services

Finally, supporting services are those which relate to habitat functioning themselves, and therefore influence survival. For example, photosynthesis, the water cycle and nutrient cycles are the basis of ecosystems, which in turn allow us to support ourselves. This type of ecosystem service also goes down to the genetic level, such as the maintenance of viable species gene pools. 

Why Are Ecosystem Services So Important?

The loss, therefore, of ecosystem services is not just an environmental issue, but an economic and social issue as it not only affects the environment, but the economy and individual well being. However, the holistic nature of ecosystem services and their interactive behaviour means that common anthropogenic pressures often affect more than one service. However, habitat destruction, pollution, and invasive species are among the most prolific threats to ecosystem services. 

Resource extraction is one of the key drivers of habitat destruction. Most resource industries – logging, mining and farming – require infrastructure that transforms the ecosystem where the resource is being extracted. For example, deforestation for mining has impacts on soil erosion and biodiversity, as well as requiring vast quantities of water, which impacts the water cycle. Additionally, when the water is released in more concentrated polluted amounts, this influences the ability of the ecosystem to purify water.

Water, land and air pollution all have severe impacts on ecosystem health, which consequently affects ecosystem services. A common example is eutrophication. As fertilisers leave the surface soils during rainfall and surface runoff from agricultural land, the nutrients, or pollutants, enrich the water, affecting the natural balance in lakes and more stagnant stretches of water. The result is a bloom in algae, which reduces the ability of subsurface plants to photosynthesise, leading to decomposition, lowering water quality and damaging the water, habitat integrity and more cultural aesthetic services

Finally, invasive species are a direct threat to ecosystem integrity and health. Introductions of invasive species into habitats can occur naturally or be caused by humans, but once an invasive species enters an ecosystem, it can be difficult to remove and it can have cascading impacts on ecosystem services. Depending on the species, they can threaten food security and affect provisioning services, as insect-pollinator pollutions can decrease through competition or predation by a newly introduced species. Crops themselves can be killed by new insects through consumption or disease-spreading. Through competition, invasive species can reduce biodiversity, and therefore, supporting services in terms of genetics if the new invasive species dominates the ecosystem. The extent of the effects of invasive species is hard to determine, but the expected cascade of impacts on ecosystem services is expected to worsen under the climate crisis.

However, further research on ecosystem services has led to the growth of fields such as environmental economics, which investigates natural capital. In a capitalist society, the monetary value attached to nature through these disciplines has the benefit of incentivising industry and governments towards more sustainable and eco-friendly policies. However, there are ethical questions as to whether this is the best way to energise conservation efforts. The work of environmental economics and investigations into natural capital is now a big driver in conservation, which has great promise for the protection of ecosystem services.

Featured image: Flickr

You might also like: Are Humans an Invasive Species?

2022 has been a year of tremendous climate extremes. Humanity is learning the extent of the existential threats posed by climate change and ecological destruction the hard way. In a year of such tremendous transformation, leaders and innovators continuously come up with solutions and new ways of thinking that make us reflect and hope. In Earth.Org’s best climate change books to read in the new year, we see a world that is ambitious about humanity’s prospects, but humble about our place in nature. Extremely hopeful for our future, while realistic about what we might have to endure.

So far, 2022 has been a whirlwind of a year. From a global health crisis that is still going to stalling economies and dysfunctional international supply chains, this year has taken us to extremes few thought imaginable, and climate is no exception. Devastating floods in South Asia, record-breaking heatwaves in Europe and India, and unprecedented wildfires across the planet made it truly incontrovertible that climate is everything, and the changes within it will impact every person, every sector, and every country.

In 2022, we at Earth.Org revamped and significantly expanded our book review series to include regular talks with authors and more in-depth coverage of their books. Aside from the award-winning writers, world-leading climate scientists and thought leaders paving the way towards humanity’s brighter future, these are our pick of the best books on climate change. 

Best Climate Change Books To Read in 2022

1. The New Climate War, by Michael Mann

Michael Mann is arguably one of the closest things we have to a climate superhero. His story is certainly reminiscent of some cinematic superhero adventures. After hitting the climate science stage hard in 1999 when co-authoring the now-famous ‘hockey stick graph’ that demonstrates how human activity has contributed to average temperature rise, Michael Mann was lambasted, criticised and dismissed by a system perpetrated by our story’s villains, principally the fossil fuel industry and other actors with vested interests But our hero did not back down, and continued to push for the emerging field of climate science to be recognised.

In The New Climate War, Mann explains how the fossil fuel industry has adjusted its tactics, from outright climate denialism to obstruction and shifting the burden of responsibility to individuals, thereby delaying necessary action to push through systemic changes. The book is a fascinating untangling of the intricate web of misinformation, misdirection and deflection perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry since climate change became an incontrovertible reality. Cautiously optimistic, Mann argues that the fundamental challenges we still face today are not tied to a technological or intellectual inability to achieve systemic change, but in the lack of political will required to do so.

2. Supercharge Me: Net Zero Faster by Eric Lonergan and Corinne Sawers

Supercharge Me (2022) takes a look at how governments, businesses and individuals behave and discuss what has (and hasn’t) worked so far in transitioning the global economy to net zero. Fund manager Eric Lonergan and sustainability adviser Corinne Sawers introduce practical ideas for change that will embolden people to reframe the climate crisis as an opportunity and suggest augmenting traditional economic solutions, such as carbon pricing, with EPICs: extreme, positive incentives for change that “supercharge” behavioural change.

3. Post Growth: Life After Capitalism, by Tim Jackson

For the economics-inclined, Post Growth may be our pick for the most accessible and inspiring technical environmental books of 2021. Professor Tim Jackson, a highly influential ecological economist, first gained fame for his 2009 book, Prosperity Without Growth, a highly researched deep dive into the economics and models that can bring us into a more sustainable and prosperous future.

Jackson’s 2021 foray is a romantic, passionate and highly readable book that illuminates what a future after capitalism, competition and egregious self-interest really looks like, largely doing away with much of the jargon and economics’ parlance used in Prosperity. Grounded in a deep understanding of ecological economics, Post Growth presents one of the most compelling arguments yet that the economy is not at all separate from the natural world, but an intrinsically embedded subsidiary of it. Under this worldview, it becomes clear that constant economic growth is simply untenable.

Whether or not you agree with Jackson’s more fundamental assertions on the nature of capitalism and its role in a prosperous society, this is a book that sheds light on a version of the future where having outright winners does not necessarily translate to having outright losers, where prosperity is not only linked to material wealth but to wellbeing, health and safety for all members of society. Post Growth does not necessarily offer the solutions and technical means that Prosperity does, but it does provide a way of thinking about the future that is hopeful, bright and entirely achievable. 

4. Under A White Sky, by Elizabeth Kolbert

For the more scientifically and solutions-inclined, this is the book pick for you. On a world-hopping adventure from one solution to the next, journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert guides readers through the sheer madness of ‘fixes’ that humans have attempted to dominate the natural world. The bottom line is this: we like to think of ourselves as ingenious problem solvers, and we certainly can be, but more often than not, our actions have unforeseen and reverberating effects on ecosystems and human populations.

Under A White Sky immensely readable, vividly describing everything from the flooding marshlands of Louisiana to the mind-bogglingly exciting developments in genetic engineering. In each new location, Kolbert dives into the latest technological fix that is being attempted, often to cover up the unintended consequences of the last techno-fix humans tried out. This is a hugely entertaining book that accurately describes some of the most cutting-edge and complex solutions to the environmental crisis that humans have come up with. But it is also a cautionary tale that puts into perspective just how far we’ve gone, and what that has already done to the world.

5. This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs The Climate by Naomi Klein

Rob Nixon from The New York Times called it “the most momentous and contentious environmental book since Silent Spring”. Hard-hitting journalist Naomi Klein uncovers the myths clouding the climate debate, unearthing how powerful and well-financed right wing think tanks and lobby groups are at the source of the climate change denial.

This Changes Everything (2014) challenges the current “free market” ideology, which Klein argues is unable to solve the climate change crisis.

You might also like: 10 Climate Change Movies To Watch in 2022

6. Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet by George Monbiot 

Traditional farming is destroying our planet, killing wildlife, poisoning water sources, and destroying forests and land – and despite all this, millions still go hungry. But as British writer and activist George Monbiot brilliantly explains in Regenesis (2022), there are ways to feed the world without destroying it. Monbiot has spent years visiting different ecosystems across the planet and has met people who are unlocking revolutionary methods that have the potential to save the future of humanity, “from the fruit and vegetable grower revolutionising our understanding of fertility; through breeders of perennial grains, liberating the land from ploughs and poisons; to the scientists pioneering new ways to grow protein and fat.”

7. The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative by Florence Williams

From eucalyptus groves in California, forest trails in Korea, to islands in Finland, Florence Williams investigates the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain. Delving into cutting-edge research, The Nature Fix (2017) exposes the powers of the natural world to improve health, strengthen our relationships and promote reflection and innovation.

8. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken

Drawdown (2017) gathers the 100 most effective solutions to halt global warming from leading scientists and policymakers, which if adopted, could even reduce the overall greenhouse gasses currently present in the atmosphere . Already firmly anchored in the New York Times bestseller list, Hawken ranks optimal solutions – like moderating the use of air-conditioners and refrigerators, or adopting a plant-rich diet – by the amount of potential greenhouse gases they can avoid or remove.

9. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O. Wilson

Half Earth (2016), written by one of the world’s greatest naturalists and a double Pulitzer Prize winner, proposes an realistic plan to save our imperilled biosphere: devote half the surface of the Earth to nature. In order to stave off the mass extinction of species including our own, we must move swiftly to preserve the biodiversity of our planet, Wilson urges in one of his most impassioned books about climate change to date. 

10. Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet by Dieter Helm

The first real attempt to calibrate, measure and value natural capital from an economic perspective, Natural Capital (2015) shifts the parameters of the current environmental debate. Dieter Helm, Fellow of Economics at the University of Oxford, claims that refusing to place an economic value on nature risks an environmental meltdown. He proceeds to outline a new framework to couple economic growth with respect for our natural endowment without sacrificing the former.

11. Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America by Thomas Friedman

Given the recent buzz about the Green New Deal in American politics, we recommend this brilliant book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author who coined the term, Thomas L. Friedman. Hot, Flat and Crowded (2008) speaks to America’s urgent need to expand national renewables and how climate change presents a unique opportunity for the US – not only to transform its economy, but to lead the world in innovating toward cleaner energy.

12. The Big Fix: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet by Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis

While being a conscious and greener consumer helps, this won’t be enough to bring our greenhouse gas emissions to zero and save our planet. As energy policy advisor Hal Harvey and longtime New York Times reporter Justin Gillis argue in their book The Big Fix: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet (2022), citizens must push for policies that can make a big difference in seven main areas: electricity production, transportation, buildings, industry, urbanisation, use of land, and investment in promising new green technologies.

13. Sustainable Nation: Urban Design Patterns for the Future by Douglas Farr

An essential resource for urban designers, planners and architects, Sustainable Nation (2018) is an urgent call to action and a guidebook for change. An architect and urban planner, Douglas Farr details how designing cities and buildings with sustainable criteria can mitigate the humanitarian, population and climate crises.

14. The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

If you need to quickly get up to speed with the sheer scale of the climate emergency, journalist David Wallace-Wells’s succinct but brutal portrait of our future lives on earth may be for you. In 200 pages, it unpacks the different dimensions of our forecast future, from heat death to unbreathable air. 

As Wallace-Wells puts it in the book’s first line, “it is worse, much worse, than you think.” Even for those who feel they are well-versed on the issue, the endless stream of disasters that have or could be caused by global warming effectively shakes the reader out of any complacency. 

While the book does not offer solutions, it does make it clear that we already have all the tools we need to avoid the worst effects. But ultimately The Uninhabitable Earth seeks to make clear the horror of the emergency of the consequences before us. Unless we accept the urgency, how can we expect to get ourselves out of this mess?

15. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

By 2050, the climate crisis will have driven the extinction of up to half the world’s species, according to this book that is written on the frontlines of environmental breakdown. We are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction event, which is set to be the fastest such event on record.

Kolbert outlines how humans have driven the extinction of biodiversity, or to the brink of extinction, from the Panamanian golden frog nearly completely wiped out in the wild by a fungal disease to the Maui, which is in peril due to deforestation. 

We are driving these species to extinction in many ways: some connected to the climate crisis through rising sea levels rising and deforestation, as well as by spreading disease-carrying species and poaching. By fundamentally altering earth’s delicately balanced ecosystems, we are risking our own future too. 

16. Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change by Nathaniel Rich

We have known about the perils of climate change for decades and yet very little to nothing was done about it. This book details the decade from 1979 to 1989 when we were starting to have a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change. Focussing mainly on the US’s response to the crisis, the book follows the scientists and activists who tried to sound the alarm, and the Reaganite politicians and businesses who worked to make sure that no meaningful action was taken.

Rich says that the world came close to signing binding international treaties to mitigate the acceleration of global warming. However, by the start of the 90s, what was once regarded as a bipartisan issue came to be seen as a partisan one after the oil industry “descended and bared its fangs.”

Since then, more carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere than in all the preceding years of history of civilisation. Losing Earth is an essential cautionary tale for facing the climate battles ahead.

17. Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change by Dieter Helm

Another entry by Helm, Net Zero addresses the action we all need to take, whether personal, local, national or global, if we really want to stop climate change.

This book is a measured, balanced view of how we stop causing climate change by adopting a net zero strategy of reducing carbon emissions and increasing carbon absorption. It is a rational look at why the past 30 years’ efforts have failed and why and how the next 30 years can succeed. Like the other books on this list, it is a vital read for anyone who hears ecological activists fighting against climate change, but wonders what they can actually do.

You might also like: 10 Inspiring and Educational Environmental Books for Kids

18. Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency by Mark Lynas

This book delivers an account of the future of our earth, and our civilisation, if current rates of global warming persist.But how much worse could it get? Are we already past the point of no return? Cataloguing the very latest climate science, Lynas explores the course we have set for Earth over the next century and beyond. Degree by degree, he charts the likely impacts of global heating and the consequent climate catastrophe.  

At one degree – the world we are already living in – vast wildfires scorch California and Australia, while monster hurricanes devastate coastal cities. At two degrees the Arctic ice cap melts away, and coral reefs disappear from the tropics. At three, the world begins to run out of food, threatening millions with starvation. At four, large areas of the globe are too hot for human habitation, erasing entire nations and turning billions into climate refugees. At five, the planet is warmer than for 55 million years, while at six degrees a mass extinction of unparalleled proportions sweeps the planet, threatening to end all life on Earth. 

These escalating consequences can still be avoided, but time is running out. We must stop burning fossil fuels within a decade. If we fail, then we risk crossing tipping points that could push global climate chaos out of humanity’s control. 

19. On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal by Naomi Klein 

This book gathers more than a decade of Klein’s writing, pairing it with new material on the staggeringly high stakes of our immediate political and economic choices.

These long-form essays investigate the climate crisis not only as a political challenge but as a spiritual and imaginative one as well. With reports spanning from the ghostly Great Barrier Reef, the annual smoke-choked skies of the Pacific Northwest, post-hurricane Puerto Rico, to a Vatican attempting an unprecedented “ecological conversion,” Klein makes the case that we will rise to the existential challenge of climate change only if we are willing to transform the systems that produced this crisis.

An expansive, far-ranging exploration that sees the battle for a greener world as indistinguishable from the fight for our lives, On Fire captures the burning urgency of the climate crisis, as well as the fiery energy of a rising political movement demanding a catalytic Green New Deal.

20. Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet by Noam Chomsky & Robert Pollin

The last on our list of books about climate change, Noam Chomsky, the world’s leading public intellectual, and Robert Pollin, a renowned progressive economist, map out the catastrophic consequences of unchecked climate change and present a realistic blueprint for change: the Green New Deal.

Chomsky and Pollin show the forecasts for a hotter planet: vast stretches of the Earth will become uninhabitable, plagued by extreme weather, drought, rising seas, and crop failure. Arguing against the fear of economic disaster and unemployment arising from the transition to a green economy, they show how this unfounded concern encourages climate denialism.

The authors show how ceasing to burn fossil fuels within the next 30 years is entirely feasible. Climate change is an emergency that cannot be ignored. This book shows how it can be overcome both politically and economically.

21. Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea by Callum Roberts

Callum Roberts’ 2013 book, Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea, follows the fascinating relationship between man and water. A powerful warning to save our oceans before it is too late, this book does not hold back – it shows us just how much of an impact overfishing, pollution and climate change have had on marine life. 

Instead of speculating about what may happen in the future, Roberts sticks to proven facts and viable solutions. This makes his book stand out from other recent books on climate change and environmentalist works’ inability to offer solutions for the “doomsday scenarios” they present through their barrage of facts and statistics. The last quarter of Ocean of Life is packed with potential solutions that industries, companies, governments and ordinary people can adopt. 

You might also like: 10 Must-Read Ecofeminism Books

22. All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis” edited by Ayana Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson

This book is a collection of essays and poetry by 60 leading women climate activists. It shows the power that women have in creating the solutions that we need to mitigate the climate crisis. 

23. Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: How the Natural World is Adapting to Climate Change by Thor Hanson

While humans wrestle with net-zero targets and greenwashing, other species have had to adapt to the impacts of climate change.  According to American biologist Thor Hanson, plants and animals have “a great deal to teach us about what comes next, because for many of them, and also for many of us, that world is already here.”

These are just some of Earth.Org’s best climate change books in 2022 – we hope that you get some inspiration. As the issue of rising global temperatures imperils humanity further, it is crucial to consult a variety of impartial sources to get the most accurate information on the state of the planet. 

24. The Dolphin Among Orcas by Tom Meinerz

This story brings to light a global problem that is right under our noses, but invisible to our eyes, which is Ocean pollution and its impact on all sea life. A dolphin pod has a rare occurrence; twin sister calves are born. This is then followed by another, even rarer occurrence, the birth of a malformed calf. Courage was born with a back and tail which were deformed, or malformed in dolphin speak. His birth brings first curiosity, but then ridicule, followed by bullying from other dolphins. He and his mother had to travel
behind the pod, most often alone. But Courage overcomes his limitations and instead, turns them into an advantage.

This entertaining story helps middle school readers understand the worsening global pollution threat, for which the middle school generation is likely to find the solutions to clean it up. The tale also addresses what bullying is, and what may happen as a result. It tells the story of how perceived limitations can become unique talents, allowing for a successful life.

25. The Climate Book by Greta Thunberg

The Climate Book (2022) by Greta Thunberg – the world-famous Swedish climate activist and founder of the global movement Fridays for Future – features essays of over one hundred thinkers and experts, from oceanographers and meteorologists to economists and geophysicists, to raise awareness about the climate crisis and equip us with the knowledge to fight climate disasters and halt global warming. Thunberg also shares her own stories of demonstrating and uncovering greenwashing around the world, revealing how much we have been kept in the dark. 

You might also like: 10 Must-See Environmental Films on Netflix

The term “dead zone” or “hypoxia” refers to low-oxygen areas in the world’s lakes and oceans and is so called because very few organisms can survive in hypoxic conditions. Hypoxic zones can occur naturally, but human activities can also lead to the creation of new dead zones or the enhancement of existing ones. What are dead zones, how many are there in the world and how can they be prevented?

What is a Dead Zone?

A dead zone occurs as a result of eutrophication, which happens when a body of water is inundated with too many nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen. At normal levels, an organism called cyanobacteria – or blue-green algae – feeds on these nutrients. With too many nutrients, however, cyanobacteria grow out of control, which can be harmful. 

When the algae die and sink to the bottom of the water bed, they provide a rich food source for bacteria, which when decomposing consume dissolved oxygen from surrounding waters, depleting the supply of marine life. If stratification of the water column (when water masses with different properties form layers that prevent water mixing) occurs, these waters will remain oxygen poor. 

Human activities mainly cause these excess nutrients to be washed into the ocean, which is why dead zones are often located near inhabited coastlines. 

Shallow waters are less likely to stratify than deep waters, and so are less likely to develop hypoxic conditions. This is because shallow waters tend to be well-mixed by winds and tides. Additionally, waters that are shallow and clear enough to allow light to reach the bottom can support primary producers such as phytoplankton, algae and seagrasses that release oxygen during photosynthesis.

You might also like: 10 of the Most Endangered Species in the Ocean

What Causes Eutrophication?

This process has increased because of the rise in intensive agricultural practices, industrial activities and population growth, which all emit large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus that settle into our air, soil and water. Fossil fuels also release nitrogen into the atmosphere. 

In developed countries, heavy use of animal manure and commercial fertilisers are the main contributors to eutrophication, which runs off from fields into creeks and bays. In developing countries, untreated wastewater from sewage and industry are the main contributors, which is sometimes dumped into rivers, lakes or the ocean. 

Eutrophication’s Impact on the Environment

The eutrophication process has severe environmental impacts.

Phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients increase the productivity or fertility of marine ecosystems. Organisms such as phytoplankton, algae and seaweeds grow quickly and excessively on the water’s surface. This rapid development of algae and phytoplankton is called an algal bloom. Algal blooms can create dead zones beneath them, because they prevent light from penetrating the water’s surface. They also prevent oxygen from being absorbed by organisms beneath them. Sunlight is necessary for plants and organisms like phytoplankton and algae, which manufacture their own nutrients from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.

Algal blooms are sometimes referred to as “red tides” or “brown tides,” depending on the colour of the algae. Cyanobacteria causes red tides. 

Algal blooms are also often cause of human illness. Shellfish, such as oysters, are filter feeders. As they filter water, they absorb microbes associated with algal blooms. Many of these microbes are toxic to people. Algal blooms can also lead to the death of marine mammals and shore birds that rely on the marine ecosystem for food. 

They can also impact aquaculture, or the farming of marine life. One red tide event wiped out 90% of the entire stock of Hong Kong’s fish farms in 1998, resulting in an estimated economic loss of USD$40 million.

Algal blooms usually die soon after they appear because the ecosystem cannot support the huge number of cyanobacteria. The organisms compete with one another for the remaining oxygen and nutrients.

Hypoxia events often follow algal blooms. 

Natural Dead Zones Around the World

Not all dead zones are caused by pollution. The largest dead zone in the world, the lower portion of the Black Sea, occurs naturally. Oxygenated water is found in the upper portion of the sea, where the Black Sea’s waters mix with the Mediterranean Sea that flows through the shallow Bosporus strait.

How Many Dead Zones Are There In the World?

The Chesapeake Bay in the US was one of the first dead zones to be identified in the 1970s. Even though there are a number of programs to improve its water quality and reduce pollution runoff, the bay still has a dead zone whose size varies with the season and weather. 

Scientists have identified 415 dead zones worldwide. Hypoxic areas increased from about 10 documented cases in 1960 to at least 169 in 2007. The majority of the world’s dead zones are along the eastern coast of the US, and the coastlines of the Baltic States, Japan and the Korean Peninsula. 

Notable examples include the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea. The Gulf of Mexico has a seasonal hypoxic zone that forms every year in late summer. Its size varies from smaller than 5,000  to 22,000 square kilometres. 

The Baltic Sea is home to seven of the world’s 10 largest marine dead zones. Increased runoff from agricultural fertilisers and sewage has exacerbated the eutrophication process. Overfishing of Baltic cod has intensified the problem. Cod eat sprats, a species that eats microscopic zooplankton, which in turn eat algae. Fewer cod and more sprats mean more algae and less oxygen. The spreading dead zones are starting to reach the cod’s deep-water breeding grounds, further endangering the species.

The Baltic Sea has become the first “macro-region” targeted by the EU to combat pollution, dead zones and overfishing. The EU is coordinating the Baltic Sea Strategy with eight EU member countries that border the Baltic Sea: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden.

There are also 233 areas of concern around the world, ie. areas that are at risk of becoming hypoxic. 

What Can Be Done to Prevent Dead Zones?

Dead zones are reversible if their causes are reduced or eliminated. For example, a dead zone in the Black Sea largely disappeared in the 1990s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, when the cost of chemical fertilisers skyrocketed. Further, efforts by countries along the Rhine River to reduce sewage and industrial emissions have reduced nitrogen levels in the North Sea’s dead zone by more than 35%. There are only 13 coastal systems in recovery around the world. 

Simply put, countries around the world must reduce industrial emissions and improve agricultural practices in areas where dead zones are a problem. 

To combat the issue of dead zones, policymakers could consider incentivising inland farmers to move away from the use of harmful chemicals. Conservation compliance programmes should be implemented, benefiting farmers who engage in healthy soil and water management practices, such as placing buffers or dams to protect streams adjacent to agricultural land, and scaling up the use of perennial plants that can survive for several years and minimise soil erosion. In exchange, farmers can be allowed discounts on services and lowered taxes. States could alternatively analyse smaller watersheds within the wider basin area that carries harmful chemicals, focusing policy on the most polluted rivers and streams. By understanding which individual bodies of water carry the highest concentrations of toxic runoff to the shore, regulators can be more fiscally and temporally efficient in enacting policy changes.

You might also like: The ‘Evil Twin’ of Global Warming: What is Ocean Acidification?

Featured image by: Seann McAuliffe

An estimated 50% of supermarket products – including make-up and hygiene products and household foods – contain palm oil. Environmentally-conscious consumers are frustrated by its seemingly inescapable presence. Where does it originate, why is palm oil deforestation an issue and what actions are being taken by governments, businesses and customers to reduce its detrimental impact?

Palm oil is famous for being a major driver of large-scale deforestation of some of the world’s largest forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the Orangutan, pygmy elephant, and Sumatran rhino.

The palms from which this edible vegetable oil is obtained are native to Africa but were brought to South-East Asia just over a century ago as an ornamental tree crop. Here, they found an ideal habitat to take root in. Amongst the 42 producing countries, Indonesia and Malaysia currently make up over 85% of the global supply of palm oil.  

Palm Oil: A Ubiquitous and Hidden Ingredient

This incredibly versatile oil has different properties and functions that make it an extremely popular product worldwide.

It is semi-solid at room temperature, which makes it easier to use it. It is also table at high temperatures, making it a great frying oil. Moreover, palm oil is resistant to oxidation and is thus added to several processed foods to ensure a longer shelf-life; it is also odourless and colourless, which means that it does not alter the look or smell of food products. In Asian and African countries, palm oil is used widely as cooking oil, just like sunflower or olive oil are widely used across European countries.

Nowadays, palm oil is in nearly everything. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), nearly 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets – from pizza, doughnuts and chocolate, to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick – contain this type of oil. In many parts of the world it is also used in animal feed and as a biofuel.

Given that palm oil is in about half of supermarket products, individuals may wonder why they do not see it listed as an ingredient on their shampoo or other everyday items. Palm oil has indeed become a “dirty word” that manufacturers avoid on their packaging; and it is often not a labelling requirement. Derivatives can appear under many names, disguising their presence in everyday off-the shelf products.

Take decyl glucoside, sodium lauryl sulfate and cetearyl alcohol, for example. Nothing in the chemical terminology gives away the fact that these widely-used compounds are all byproducts of palm oil. There are around 170 different names used to disguise palm oil on packaging.

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A list of some of the many alternate names for palm oil. Source: Orangutan Foundation International

In a January 2019 report, The World Health Organisation warned that alternative names for palm oil and unclear labelling means that “consumers may be unaware of what they are eating or its safety”.

The palm oil industry is often compared to “Big Tobacco”, suggesting that it is deploying similar tactics to influence research into the health effects of its products.

“These tactics – like establishing lobbying structures in political and economic hubs, fighting regulations, attempting to undermine reliable sources of information and using poverty alleviation arguments – are similar to those pursued by the tobacco and alcohol industries” the report reads.  “However, the palm oil industry receives comparatively little scrutiny”.

The Malaysian Government has since asked the WHO to pull the report, which it described as biased. “We view the article as half-truths, un-scholarly, flawed and utterly biased against palm oil, with suspected intention of demonising the palm oil industry,” stated the Ministry of Primary Industries.

Palm fruits are the source of the world’s most popular edible oil. Photo by Nanang Sujana/CIFOR

The Issue of Palm Oil Deforestation

While the health benefits of pail oil have been disputed, one thing is certainly clear: palm oil plantations are a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, severely degrading the environment and affecting the carbon sinks of the world that leads to catastrophic impact on forests, endangered animals and climate change

Palm tree plantations have a life-cycle of 28-30 years. After this time, the trees reach a height of over 12 metres, making them uneconomical to harvest the fruits from which the oil is derived from. They are then cut and replaced by new trees.

Palm oil deforestation is a huge issue. It is estimated that up to 300 football fields forest globally are cleared every hour to make room for palm plantations, destroying the habitat of already critically endangered species like the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and rhino.

Forest loss, because of all the carbon contained in living organisms, coupled with conversion of carbon-rich peatlands, emits millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, further contributing to climate change.

NASA researchers say that accelerated slash and burn forest clearing in Borneo contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, which transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of carbon emissions.

A network of access roads on former orangutan habitat inside the PT Karya Makmur Abadi Estate II palm oil concession in East Kotawaringin district, Central Kalimantan; Borneo, Indonesia. Source: Greenpeace

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Ironically, palm oil was supposed to help save environment degradation. A decade ago, Western nations mandated the use of vegetable oil in biofuels, in an ambitious move to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and curb global warming.

Domestic pressure from rural constituencies played a role. America’s agricultural industry had been heavily lobbying to enter the energy sector to create a marketplace alternative to its natural food supply chain.

Then-President George W. Bush posited that biofuels, particularly corn-derived ethanol and biodiesel made from vegetable oil, would power our future mobility, increasing the country’s energy independence from foreign oil.

The Energy Policy Act passed in 2005 contained the first provisions for the Renewable Fuel Standards, requiring transportation fuel sold in the United States to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuel. But the legislation encouraging biofuels was drawn up based on an incomplete accounting of the true environmental costs, ignoring scientific warnings that the policies could have the opposite of their intended effect.

Biodiesel production in the US subsequently jumped from 250 million gallons to 1.5 billion gallons between 2006 and 2016. While domestic soy-bean production was diverted to meet the lucrative biofuel demand, the food industry replaced the increasingly expensive soy-based ingredients with a cheaper substitute: palm oil.

Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil flooded western markets, with a crippling effect on the tropical rainforests.

Emboldened by the unprecedented palm oil boom, large corporations cornered the market and started acquiring more land to expand production. It led to today’s ongoing industrial-scale deforestation – and a huge spike in carbon emissions.

Indonesia continues its environmental rollback, even though the country is seen as crucially important to the success of the Paris accord to cut global carbon emissions.

In December 2018, the government announced plans to build more than 100 coal-fired power plants, and expand the production of palm oil for local biofuel consumption.

“They are doing some good things, but it is not enough, said Teguh Surya, who works at a local environmental NGO, referring to Indonesia’s efforts to restore carbon-rich peatlands and a suspension on partial forest clearing. “Palm oil expansion is still in planning, on the ground we found some peat areas still open for plantation and there is still weaknesses in law enforcement.”

Power to the Consumer

Fortunately for eco-conscious consumers, a quick internet research and brand selectiveness can go a long way to steer clear of products that may contribute to unsustainable practices.

The Rainforest Foundation UK Palm Oil Guide provides a comprehensive list of sustainable companies and specific supermarket products for customers to shop more responsibly.

A handy consumer app, Buycott allows buyers across the world to scan the barcode of a product to find out its exact content and how sustainable it is.

Consumers can also look out for Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified products, as well as those containing organic palm oil.

In large numbers, more environmentally aware consumers can essentially force companies to clean up their act by boycotting corporations outed for unsustainable production– as in the cases of Nestle, Ferrero and Unilever.

To encourage change in the industry and mitigate the substance’s impact on the environment, “the solution is for big brands to only buy palm oil from responsible growers that protect rainforests”, says Diana Ruiz, senior palm oil campaigner for Greenpeace. “And it is available”.

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The Paris Agreement is the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement adopted in 2015 by almost every nation on Earth that promotes a global consensus on addressing the climate crisis. But what does it actually propose, and five years on, how much progress has been made? 

What is the Paris Agreement?

Back in 2015, at COP21 in Paris, countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to accelerate and intensify the actions needed for a sustainable global future. The Agreement sets out a framework for limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius or ‘well below 2 degrees’ above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Global temperatures have already risen 1 degree and predictions for 2.7C warming or more would have catastrophic environmental, social and economic impacts. The Agreement also asks countries to become carbon neutral by no later than the second half of this century. 

Under the Agreement, each signatory country submits their own plan for emissions reductions, called a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), in line with the overall targets. These include committing to improve financial preparedness against impacts of the climate crisis alongside directing finance flows to projects which align with lower GHG emissions. In line with evidence that less developed countries that contribute minimally to global warming are likely to be the most severely affected by the climate crisis, the Paris Agreement makes recommendations for developed countries to assist developing nations develop climate adaptation and mitigation strategies, committing a combined US$100 billion a year.

The Paris Agreement opened for signature on 22 April 2016 and entered into force on 4th November 2016 after the threshold of 55 signatory countries accounting for 55% of emissions was met. As of 2020, all UNFCCC members have signed the Agreement, with 189 (representing around 90% of global emissions) gaining formal approval on their climate proposals. The United States withdrew from the Agreement in 2020 during the Trump Administration, but recommitted in 2021 under President Joe Biden. The only significant emitters which are not parties are Iran and Turkey, ranking 8th and 15th in the world respectively for GHG emissions. 

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The Paris Agreement Map

paris agreement

Figure 1: What percentage of the world’s emissions are covered by the Paris Agreement, and who has submitted what? (Source: The Carbon Brief)

The Paris climate agreement requires all parties to report on emissions and efforts towards climate change mitigation, with their NDCs being updated every five years. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed this year’s COP 26 talks, where updated NDCs would have been announced and the Paris Agreement would officially come into effect, until 2021. Alok Sharma, COP 26 President and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, summarises the UK’s aims for COP26: 

it is hoped that the postponement of the COP 26 talks will not dissuade countries from continuing to prioritise climate plans, given the imperative nature of tough climate plans. Marianne Karlsen, chair of UN Climate Change’s implementation body, argues the postponement ‘doesn’t take away the pressure’ for countries to submit increased NDCs by the end of this year. According to speakers on a recent OECD-WWF hosted webinar, the delay offers governments a crucial window to improve and ensure plans are better aligned with efforts for a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

How Close are We to Meeting Any of These Commitments? 

The Climate Action Tracker (CAT) covers 80% of global emissions and assesses countries based on how likely their Paris commitments will achieve the 1.5 degrees target. “If all governments meet their Paris Agreement target, we calculate the world would still see 3C of warming, but that warming is likely to be even higher given most are not taking enough action to meet their targets”, says Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, one of the CAT’s organisations. what is the paris agreement, climate action tracker

Figure 2: The Climate Action Tracker map (Source: Climate Action Tracker).

Morocco is one of only two countries with climate mitigation plans consistent with limiting warming to 1.5C. The country’s National Energy Strategy calls for generating 42% of its electricity from renewables by the end of 2020 (which they are on track to achieve) and 52% by 2030. 

At the other end of the scale is the US, with the CAT describing its Paris targets as ‘critically insufficient’. In 2020, President Trump withdrew the USA from the Paris Agreement. Despite the US re-joining again within months led by President Joe Biden,  the Trump administration rolled back many critical environmental protection policies and climate action during his four-year tenure – keep in mind that the the US remains to be the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide globally, the leading cause of global warming. It’s too early to tell the extent of which the Trump administration has damaged the country’s progress in combating global warming. 

Slightly more positive action comes from China, who have committed to levelling off their carbon emissions by 2030 at the very latest, whilst India has committed to generating 40% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. Part of India’s pledge also sees the creation of a carbon sink area of 2.5 to 3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030. This action is crucial, and cannot come with much delay- a worldwide failure to meet the current targets could reduce global GDP by more than 25% by 2100.  

In the IPCC Report published in August 2021, which is put together by an intergovernmental body dedicated to uncovering and understanding the purely scientific underpinnings of climate change, has found that global temperatures will very likely rise 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2040.

It’s clear that the Paris Agreement is more important than ever, and can be a powerful and influential force in the fight against the climate crisis. But signatory countries and other will need to take it up a notch and urgent action must be taken if we are to slow down the rapid rate of global warming and to meet the 1.5C target.

The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement that aimed to manage and reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases. The Protocol was adopted at a conference in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 and became international law on February 16, 2005. 

What is the Kyoto Protocol?

The Protocol operationalised the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 192 nations committed to reducing their emissions by an average of 5.2% by 2012, which would represent about 29% of the world’s total emissions. 

Countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol were assigned maximum carbon emission levels for specific periods and participated in carbon credit trading. If a country emitted more than its assigned limit, then it would receive a lower emissions limit in the following period.

Key Facts of the Kyoto Protocol

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kyoto protocol

Green- Annex B parties with binding targets in the second period; purple- Annex B parties with binding targets in the first period but not the second; blue- Non-Annex B parties without binding targets; yellow- Annex B parties with binding targets in the first period but which withdrew from the Protocol; orange- Signatories to the Protocol that have not ratified; red- Other UN member states and observers that are not party to the Protocol (Source:Wikipedia).

Developed vs Developing Nations

Recognising that developed countries are principally responsible for the current levels of GHG emissions as a result of more than 150 years of unmitigated industrial activity, the Protocol placed a heavier burden on them. 37 industrialised nations plus the EU were mandated to cut their GHG emissions, while developing countries were asked to voluntarily comply; more than 100 developing countries, including China and India, were exempted from the treaty.

The Protocol separated countries into two groups: Annex I contained developed nations, and Non-Annex I contained developing countries. Emission limits were placed on Annex I countries only. Non-Annex I countries could invest in projects to lower emissions in their countries. For these projects, developing countries earned carbon credits that they could trade or sell to developed countries, allowing the developing nations a higher level of maximum carbon emissions for that period. This effectively allowed developed countries to continue emitting GHGs.

The Protocol established a monitoring, review and verification system, as well as a compliance system to ensure transparency and hold parties accountable. All countries’ emissions had to be monitored and precise records of the trades kept through registry systems.

3 Kyoto Mechanisms

The Protocol established market mechanisms based on the trade of emissions permits. It allowed countries an additional means to meet their targets by way of three market-based mechanisms: International Emissions Trading, Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation (JI). 

The mechanisms encouraged GHG mitigation in the most cost-effective ways, ie. in the developing world. The idea was that as long as pollution is removed from the atmosphere, it does not matter where it is reduced, which stimulated green investment in developing countries and included the private sector to develop cleaner infrastructure and systems over older, dirtier technology. 

An Adaptation Fund was established to finance adaptation projects and programmes in developing countries that are parties to the Protocol. In the first commitment period, the Fund was financed mainly with a share of proceeds from CDM project activities. For the second commitment period, international emissions trading and joint implementation would also provide the Fund with a 2% share of proceeds. 

The International Emissions Trading mechanism allows countries that have emission units to spare – emissions permitted them but not “used”- to sell this excess capacity to countries that are over their targets.

The Clean Development Mechanism allows a country with an emission-reduction or emission-limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Party) to implement an emission-reduction project in developing countries. Such projects can earn saleable certified emission reduction (CER) credits, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2, which can be counted towards meeting Kyoto targets.

Finally, the Joint Implementation mechanism allows a country with an emission reduction or limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Party) to earn emission reduction units (ERUs) from an emission-reduction or emission removal project in another Annex B Party, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2, which can be counted towards meeting its Kyoto target.

The Doha Amendment

After the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ended in December 2012, parties to the Protocol met in Doha, Qatar, to discuss an amendment to the original Kyoto agreement. The Doha Amendment added new targets for the second commitment period, 2012-2020. While first commitment period aimed to reduce GHG by 5%, the second amendment committed to reduce GHG emissions by at least 18% below 1990 levels.

This was short-lived; in 2015, all UNFCCC participants signed another pact, the Paris Climate Agreement, which effectively replaced the Kyoto Protocol.

The Paris Climate Agreement

The Paris Agreement was adopted by nearly every nation- 190 states and the EU- in 2015 to address the negative effects of the climate crisis. The agreement covers around 97% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Commitments were made from all major GHG-emitting countries to cut their emissions and strengthen these commitments over time. It was arguably the first time that most of the world agreed to pursue a common cause. 

A major directive of the agreement is to cut GHG emissions so as to limit global temperature rise in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, while taking steps to limit this to 1.5 degrees. It also provides a way for developed nations to help developing nations and creates a framework for monitoring and reporting countries’ climate goals transparently. 

Unfortunately, countries are not on their way to achieving the Paris Agreement- a report by the UNFCCC indicated that nations must redouble their climate efforts if they are to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise by 2C—ideally 1.5C—by 2100.

How Has the Kyoto Protocol Worked Out?

In 2005, many countries, including those in the EU, planned to meet or exceed their targets under the agreement by 2011. Others, such as the US and China- the world’s biggest emitters- produced enough GHGs to mitigate any of the progress made by countries who met their targets. In fact, there was an increase of about 40% in emissions globally between 1990 and 2009. 

Why Did the United States Not Sign the Kyoto Protocol?

The US dropped out of the agreement in 2001, calling the treaty unfair because it mandated only developed countries to reduce emissions, and felt that doing so would hinder the US economy. 

Talks have been marred by politics, money, lack of leadership and lack of consensus. GHG emissions are still rising, and countries are not addressing them quickly enough.

Important Dates of the Kyoto Protocol

December 1-11, 1997 The Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC is held in Kyoto, Japan. Nearly 200 nations attend and adopt the first international treaty on managing and reducing greenhouse gases.

November 2, 1998 – In Buenos Aires 160 nations meet to work out details of the protocol and create the “Buenos Aires Action Plan.”

July 23, 2001 – Negotiators from 178 countries meet in Germany and agree to adopt the protocol, without the participation of the US. 

November 10, 2001 – Representatives from 160 countries meet in Marrakech, Morocco, to work out details of the protocol.

November 18, 2004 – The Russian Federation ratifies the protocol.

February 16, 2005 – The Kyoto Protocol comes into effect.

December 12, 2011 – Canada renounces the Kyoto Protocol, saying its goals are unworkable because the US and China never agreed to it, and says that a new pact is needed to address emissions.

December 2012 – The Kyoto Protocol is extended to 2020 during a conference in Doha, Qatar. 

June 23, 2013 – Afghanistan adopts the Kyoto Protocol, becoming the 192nd signatory.

2015 – At the COP21 summit, held in Paris, all UNFCCC participants sign the Paris Agreement that effectively replaces the Kyoto Protocol. The parties agree to limit warming to ‘well below’ 2 degrees, and below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels if possible.

Featured image by: flickr 

Coral reefs are facing events of severe bleaching and physical destruction due to human coastal development, as well as the effects of unmanaged tourism, including anchoring, fish feeding, marine litter and diver contact. Their resilience depends on effective management. We take a look at how resilience-based management is being adopted in major reef regions around the world to secure the foundations for sustainable development and adapt to global warming.

The Importance of Coral Reefs 

Coral reefs are among the most valuable ecosystems on the planet. Besides containing one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth, coral reefs protect coastlines from the damaging effects of wave action and tropical storms, are a source of nitrogen and other nutrients for marine food chains, assist in nitrogen and carbon fixing and are a source of income for millions of people around the world. They also play an important role in generating the sand and rubble that maintain islands and cays. 

Resilience-based management plans focus on the processes essential to coral’s ability to survive the impacts of global warming. Key strategies to include in these plans include identifying and protecting reef areas that are naturally resistant to climate change impacts, reducing sources of pollution that increase sensitivity of corals or increase their susceptibility to disease, preventing damage to reefs through poor boating practices or destructive fishing, preventing overfishing of herbivorous fish and restoring places of ecological priority following stress events. 

The Threats to Coral Reefs

Macroalgae and herbivorous fish populations should also be closely monitored. Macroalgae, such as seaweed, is known to poison corals and reduce or halt the settlement and survival of juvenile corals. Herbivorous fish, such as parrotfish and surgeonfish, reduce or eliminate macroalgae from coral reefs and facilitate the growth of reef corals. Increasing the diversity of herbivorous fish and other functional fish groups can indirectly drive coral reef recovery. 

Studying the trajectory of algal growth over time allows researchers to determine the success or failure of strategies to manage herbivory or other factors that contribute to algal growth and the success of reef corals. 

While coral animals are incredibly fragile (just one knock from the fin of a careless diver or snorkeller could cause coral breakage that takes many months, or even years, to recover from), they have proven to be resilient; healthy coral that is free from stress has a better chance of recovery, whereas coral that experiences stress will recover slowly, if at all. 

For example, while coral cover in Bonaire, an island in the Caribbean, suffered extensive damage following a hurricane and a coral bleaching event, corals have recovered to pre-bleaching levels less than a decade later due to effective resilience management.

Sustainable Management of Coral Reefs

Several factors contributed to its management success. The island developed its diving and hotel industries early and they have become Bonaire’s economic engine, above industries such as fishing. Additionally, the most economically valued fishing targeted fish other than coral reef dwelling fish. These factors mean that relatively few people in Bonaire depend on reef fish for food, allowing the fish to thrive. 

While addressing global threats poses a huge challenge, there are many things that can be done on a grassroots level. Therefore, focusing on reducing these direct threats- which can make corals more vulnerable to larger-scale stressors- is key. 

The Reef-World Foundation is a conservation NGO aiming to improve environmental practices across the marine tourism industry. The charity coordinates the Green Fins initiative globally in partnership with the UN Environment Programme. Green Fins focuses on helping diving and snorkelling businesses, as well as individual tourists, reduce their negative impact on coral reefs and other marine environments and provides the only internationally recognised environmental standards for diving and snorkelling.

Green Fins works to measurably reduce direct threats to coral reefs such as diver contact, anchoring, fish feeding, marine litter and chemical discharge, amongst others. Not only does this type of well-managed tourism protect coral reefs- leaving them healthier, more resilient to climate change impacts and more effective at their ecosystem services- but also presents an economic opportunity, creating food and sustainable employment for millions of people around the world. 

Sam Craven, Programmes Manager at Reef-World, has been involved in the implementation of the initiative for many years. Achieving conservation impact, for Sam and her team, is all about collaboration; whether that be with governments, marine tourism operators or individual dive guides and tourists. She explains: “More often than not, marine conservation is less about ‘saving the sea’ and more about managing people’s impact on the sea.” She continues: “Science alone doesn’t change the world; it’s how you use it that counts.” 

Climate change-related coral mortality is unavoidable, but local management actions can improve conditions for regrowth and rehabilitation. Yet, while management schemes should be seen as essential components of mitigating coral reef mortality, major reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions is vital for securing a sustainable future for coral reefs and those who depend on them. 

This is Part One of “Improving the Resilience of Coral Reefs.” Read Part Two here.

The Earth’s average temperature is around 15 degrees Celsius. There are natural fluctuations in the global climate- with temperatures in the past being much lower and higher at various times- but scientists say that temperatures are now rising faster than at any other time in history. This is climate change, and it’s impacting our planet in ways that we do not understand the full scope of. 

One of the driving factors of this is the greenhouse effect, a term used to describe how the Earth’s atmosphere traps some of the Sun’s energy. Greenhouse gases trap some of the solar energy radiating back to space from the surface of the Earth, causing the planet to heat up. This isn’t all bad, as without the greenhouse effect, the planet would be about 30 degrees colder and very hostile to life. 

The problem is that we are adding to this natural greenhouse effect because gases released from industry and agriculture are trapping more heat and increasing the temperature. 

The 20 warmest years on record have all occurred in the past 22 years, with 2015-2018 making up the top four. 

This is called climate change. Some people choose to call it the “climate crisis” because it communicates a more urgent situation.

What are Greenhouse Gases?

Despite what many may think, the greenhouse gas with the greatest impact on global warming is water vapour, however it remains in the atmosphere for only a few days. 

Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for much longer. To return to pre-industrial levels would take hundreds of years. Natural carbon sinks like oceans absorb some of this, but they are slowly becoming saturated with carbon, meaning that they will soon start emitting more carbon than they absorb. The concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in at least 800 000 years and the world is about one degree Celsius warmer than before industrialisation. 

Most man-made emissions of carbon dioxide come from burning fossil fuels. 

Other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are also released by human activities, but they are less abundant than carbon dioxide. However, as permafrost in the polar regions starts to melt, it will release a vast amount of methane, which is more potent than carbon dioxide. 

How Much Will Temperatures Rise?

The World Meteorological Organization says that if the current warming trend continues, temperatures could rise 3-5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, but an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2018 says that we need to keep this to 1.5 degrees to avoid “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

However, even if we fully stopped greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, warming could only be somewhat halted from 2033; large bodies of water and ice can take hundreds of years to respond to changes in temperature and it takes decades for CO2 to be removed from the atmosphere.

How Does Climate Change Affect the Ocean?

Because the oceans absorb much of the atmospheric carbon dioxide, water temperatures also increase. As it heats up, it increases in volume, adding to sea level rise. Across the globe, the average sea level increased by 3.6mm per year between 2005 and 2015.

An increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide will also make the oceans more acidic, which will make it very difficult for coral reefs and other marine life to survive. It will also increase the presence of “dead zones” around the world- bodies of water that have no oxygen content and cannot support life. 

However, it is thought that the main reason for rising sea levels is melting ice. Most glaciers around the world are retreating. There has been a dramatic decline in Arctic sea ice since 1979 and the Greenland ice sheet has experienced record melting in recent years, with 2019 seeing the sheet lose 1 million tons of ice per minute. If the entire Greenland ice sheet melts, sea level would rise by six metres.

How Will We Be Affected by Climate Change?

Climate change manifests itself in many ways. It will cause water shortages in already-vulnerable areas, like many countries in Africa, India and Asia, but that’s not to say it won’t affect the Global North either. It will affect our food supply and security and increase the deaths from extreme weather events like floods, storms and heatwaves. 

More areas will experience more intense rainfall because there will be more moisture in the air. However, the risk of drought in some areas will increase. Poorer countries will suffer the most from climate change as illnesses like malaria, water-borne diseases and malnutrition will also increase. 

Hundreds, if not thousands, of plant and animal species are predicted to go extinct as habitats change faster than they are able to adapt to. This includes earlier flowering and fruiting time for plants. 

Responding to climate change will be one of the biggest challenges we face this century and it requires an aggressive, coordinated response from all the governments of the world. 

A report has found that from 1990 to 2015, the carbon emissions of the richest 1% of the world were more than double those of the poorest 50%. The report shines a light on the climate inequality that exists between developed and developing countries and how developing countries are being disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. 

The report, Confronting Carbon Inequality, is based on research conducted by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute and is released as world leaders prepare to meet at the UN General Assembly to discuss challenges including the climate crisis. 

The report assesses the consumption emissions of different income groups during the 25-year period during which time the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubled. Among other things, it found that the richest 10% accounted for 52% of the CO2 emissions. The richest 1% accounted for 15% of emissions-more than twice that of the poorest 50% of humanity- 7%. Additionally, the richest 1% increased its emissions by more than three times that of the poorest 50%. Finally, the team found that the richest 10% accounted for one-third of the carbon emissions that scientists estimate will cause the planet to warm more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, while the poorest half emitted just 4%. 

The richest 10% are those with incomes above about USD$35 000 a year, while the richest 1% are those earning more than about $100 000.

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Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB Chief Executive, says, “The over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fuelling the climate crisis and putting the planet in peril. No one is immune from the impact but the world’s poorest are paying the heaviest price despite contributing least emissions as they battle floods, famines and cyclones.”

He continues, “Carbon emissions risk rapidly rebounding as governments ease Covid-related lockdowns. If emissions do not keep falling year on year and carbon inequality is left unchecked, by 2030 the world could reach the tipping point of 1.5C warming. Carbon inequality is so stark the emissions of just the richest 10% would trigger catastrophic climate change by 2033 even if all other emissions were cut to zero.”

The report warns that overconsumption and the rich world’s propensity to use high-carbon transportation are exhausting the world’s carbon budget. 

Tim Gore, head of policy, advocacy and research at Oxfam, says,“The global carbon budget has been squandered to expand the consumption of the already rich, rather than to improve humanity. A finite amount of carbon can be added to the atmosphere if we want to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. We need to ensure that carbon is used for the best.”

Oxfam has called for an increase in wealth taxes and new carbon taxes on luxury items such as private jets, super yachts and SUVs, with the revenue from these to be invested in low-carbon jobs such as in the social care sector and in green public transport as well as to help poor communities around the world adapt to the changing climate.

Sriskandarajah said: “Extreme carbon inequality is a direct consequence of the decades-long pursuit by governments and businesses of grossly unequal and carbon intensive economic growth whatever the cost. As leaders make decisions about what a post-COVID recovery looks like, they should seize this opportunity to reshape our economy, encourage low carbon living and create a better future for all.

Featured image by: Flickr 

Green hydrogen is a clean burning fuel that eliminates emissions by using renewable energy to electrolyse water, separating the hydrogen atom within it from its molecular twin oxygen. 

How Is Green Hydrogen Made?

The process of electrolysis has to happen. This process requires water, a big electrolyzer and plentiful supplies of electricity. if this electricity comes from renewable sources, then the hydrogen is green; the only carbon emissions are those from the generation infrastructure. 

However, not much green hydrogen is currently being produced; it currently accounts for less than 1% of annual hydrogen production, according to Wood Mackenzie. 

A challenge lies in the relatively small supply of electrolyzers and compared to more established production processes, electrolysis is very expensive, so the market for electrolyzers is small. 

How Do You Use It?

Green hydrogen can be added to natural gas and burnt in thermal power or district heating plants. It can be used to replace the industrial hydrogen that gets made every year from natural gas. 

However, storing and transporting green hydrogen is difficult; the highly flammable gas occupies a lot of space and can make steel pipes brittle. Because of this, specialised pipelines must be built, which is costly, pressurising the gas or cooling it to a liquid. These last two processes are energy-intensive and undermine green hydrogen’s round-trip efficiency. 

How Expensive Is It?

The International Energy Agency put the cost of green hydrogen at USD$3 to $7.50 per kg, compared to $0.90 to $3.20 for production using steam methane reformation. 

The cost of electrolyzers must be cut to reduce the price of green hydrogen, but this will take time and scale. However, the IEA says that electrolyzer costs could fall by half by 2040, from around $840 per kilowatt of capacity today. 

Another problem is that green hydrogen requires very large amounts of cheap renewable energy because some is lost in the process of electrolysis. Shell says that electrolyzer efficiencies range from around 60-80%. 

It is likely that developers, like Lightsource BP and Shell, will build green hydrogen production plants with dedicated renewable energy generation assets in high-resource locations. 

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Although a consensus has been reached that the world cannot be “fully decarbonised in the long term without green hydrogen,” producing the quantities of green hydrogen that the world will need would require a massive amount of renewable energy as well. 

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), the world will need 19 exajoules of green hydrogen in the energy system in 2050- between 133.8 million and 158.3 million tons a year. 

Annual growth rates of wind and solar are increasing, however it is nowhere near enough for the world to be in line with the Paris Agreement goals. “The share of renewables in the worlds’ total final energy consumption has to increase six times faster to meet agreed climate goals,” Irena wrote in a report last year. 

With this, many argue, particularly within the oil and gas sector, that meeting ever- increasing energy demands with solely electricity is not going to be possible.

The current argument for clean hydrogen is that the bulk of the required volume of energy will have to be produced by natural gas and CCUs, also known as blue hydrogen. 

Several oil majors are struggling for pole position in green hydrogen development. For example, Shell Netherland confirmed in May that it had joined forces with energy company Eneco to bid for capacity in the latest Dutch offshore wind tender to create an enormous hydrogen cluster in the Netherlands. BP’s solar developer Lightsource also revealed that it plans to develop an Australian clean hydrogen plant powered by 1.5 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity. 

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