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recent analysis by the Zoological Society of London found that over half of the 100 most significant tropical timber and pulp companies do not publicly commit to protecting biodiversity and only 44% have yet to publicly commit to zero deforestation. As of 2021, forests still cover about 31% of the world’s land area, but they are disappearing at an alarming rate. Since 1990, the world lost 1.3 million square kilometres of forest due to deforestation for land uses and commercial agriculture. The area of primary forest worldwide has since decreased by over 80 million hectares. A number of companies remain to be the drivers for deforestation and they should be named and shamed and held accountable for their actions, which threaten every inhabitant of the planet: human, animal, and plant. There are many, but here are 13 major companies that are responsible for deforestation.

Who is Responsible for Deforestation?

1. Cargill

The US-based company has a long history of destruction and one of the biggest companies that contribute to deforestation, according to a report by the NGO Mighty Earth. The report details how Cargill profits from the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of people. In Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia, Cargill is involved in the destruction of the Amazon, Grand Chaco, and Cerrado ecosystems for the production of soy and beef. In Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, Cargill buys coca that has been illegally grown in protected areas and national parks. In Indonesia and Malaysia, Cargill buys palm oil from companies that illegally clear rainforests. The report also claims that Cargill uses inaccurate accounting methods to underestimate how harmful its practices are. Its corporate customers include McDonald’s, Burger King, Walmart, Walmart, Unilever, and more.

2. BlackRock

In January 2020, investment firm BlackRock announced it would exit investments with high environmental risks, including thermal coal. They also said that they would launch new investment products that screen for fossil fuels. However, BlackRock has been accused of “climate hypocrisy” since, in September, a big data tool found that the firm’s ESG funds hold companies with a deforestation risk that stretches over 500 hectares of land, more than any other fund.

3. Wilmar International Ltd.

The world’s largest refiner and trader of palm oil, Wilmar International received a total score of 25% on Forest 500, which assesses the biggest companies in the world in terms of their anti-deforestation commitments. The company is one of the world’s largest oil palm plantation owners and processors, reportedly controlling around 45% of worldwide palm oil trade sourced from more than 80% of global palm oil growers. Wilmar also has a global soybean crushing capacity of 36 million metric tons per year, the majority of which is in China. It has no commitments to protect priority forests and no commitments to report on its supply chain. They also do not monitor or verify supplier compliance. Furthermore, in April 2020, the company left a committee that helps to identify forest areas for protection.

4. Walmart

Walmart has set zero-deforestation goals for 2020, however, it does not have a system in place to track and monitor the origin of forest-risk commodities – palm oil, pulp and paper, soy, and beef; it says that implementing such a system is “not an immediate business priority.” It is unlikely that it will meet the goals defined for these key commodities, but it also “does not know” what percentage of the soy and beef used in the product it sells is produced with zero net deforestation.

In 2019,  Mighty Earth was publicly linked to the fires in the Amazon as it conducted business with the Brazilian beef company JBS. Walmart is also a major buyer of Cargill’s products, the second-largest Brazilian soy exporter.

You might also like: 10 Amazon Rainforest Deforestation Facts to Know About

5. JBS

JBS is one of Brazil’s leading exporters of beef and one of the more known deforestation companies. It operates over 200 production facilities worldwide, processing many tens of thousands of cattle per day. In addition to beef, JBS uses soy in its animal feed in cattle feedlots, poultry, and swine farms. On the Forest 500 index, it has received a score of just 39%.

Further, in July 2020, JBS reportedly acquired cattle from a farm in the Brazilian Amazon which is under sanction for illegal deforestation, the fifth time in a year that the company has been linked to illegal deforestation.


Despite claims that it does not accept illegally logged wood in its products, a report accused IKEA of sourcing manufactured products from suppliers that have used logs that were felled illegally in Ukraine. VGSM, one of IKEA’s suppliers, also cut down trees during a “silence period” between April and mid-June, when certain forms of logging in Ukraine are banned during the critical breeding period for lynx and other species. Those logs were also felled under a “sanitary felling” permit, a widely-used loophole in Ukrainian that allows for trees to be cut down and sold provided they were already damaged by disease or insect infestation. These permits are often issued even when the felled trees show little or no signs of degradation.

According to the company, they are the largest producer of wooden furniture in the world, meaning that their operations require large amounts of timber.

Despite saying that it will investigate the claim and potentially end its relationship with the law-breaking supplier, the Swedish furniture company received a score of 48% on the Forest 500 index, failing in the commodity categories of timber, leather, pulp and paper, and palm oil. Its commitment strength to protect priority forests is also low for all commodities.

In 2021, the Swedish giant was also implicated in an Earthsight investigation for selling children’s furniture made from wood linked to illegal logging in protected Siberian forests in Russia.

7. Korindo Group PT

Korindo group is an Indonesian-based producer, processor, and manufacturer of various products, including wind towers, battery separators, specialised container vehicles, and cast iron products. It has plantations of palm oil and timber.

two-year investigation process by the International Board of Directors of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a global certification body on responsible forest management found the company guilty of violating its association policies. Korindo has engaged in massive-scale deforestation in Papua and North Maluku (more than 30 000 hectares in the two years prior to filing the complaint), Indonesia, and has been using the FSC’s eco-forestry label to greenwash its practices. The investigation also found that the company destroys critical wildlife habitats and violates traditional and human rights. It sells its timber, plywood, pulpwood, biomass, and newsprint to Asia Pulp & Paper, APRIL, Sumitomo Forestry, Oji Corporation, and News Corps Australia.

The company has received a score of 38% on the Forest 500 index based on its poor commitment strength, reporting and implementation, and social considerations.

8. Yakult Honsha Co. Ltd

This is the Japanese manufacturer of the popular probiotic milk drink Yakult. It also produces a variety of other food and beverage products, as well as pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. Through its various product lines, Yakult is exposed to forest risk commodity palm oil, soy, and pulp and paper.

Shockingly, it has a score of 3% on the Forest 500 index; it has made no commitments to protect any priority forests in which it operates. In 2018, it committed to ending deforestation by 2020 but it has since dropped that commitment.

9. Starbucks

In 2015, Starbucks was ranked as the largest chain of coffee shops in the world by the number of stores; in 2017, it had over 24 000 outlets in 70 countries. Starbucks also sells teas, bottled drinks, baked goods, snacks, and other food. Its products and packaging expose the company to various forest risk commodities such as palm oil, soy, beef, and paper. On the Forest 500 index, it performs very poorly for palm oil, soy, and pulp and paper, but especially soy, where its commitment strength, reporting and monitoring, and social consideration scores are abysmal. It scored 25% on the index overall, making it one of the companies that caused deforestation.

Starbucks says that 99% of its coffee is now ethically sourced, but it has yet to adopt sourcing policies that ensure that the palm oil in its baked goods does not contribute to deforestation, climate change, and human rights violations. A Wall Street Journal investigation found human rights abuses on plantations in Malaysia.

10. McDonald’s

McDonald’s has more than 36 000 locations in over 100 countries. Its burgers, sandwiches, sides, and beverages involve significant amounts of beef, soy, and palm oil, as well as paper in packaging. In 2015, over 120 000 metric tons of palm oil were used by McDonald’s. The fast-food restaurant gets its soy from Cargill, one of the most renowned deforestation companies.

These companies conduct billions of dollars’ worth of business all around the world- they should not be allowed to continue their wanton acts of destruction against the environment, deforestation or otherwise. Wherever possible, the countries in which they operate should mandate that they either source their products in an ethical and sustainable way, or move their production somewhere else. If every country were to take this hard a stance, these unethical companies would soon have nowhere to go.

11. Yum! Brands

The American fast food corporation owns a majority of the country’s biggest fast food chains including KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Considering the massive amounts of meat, soy, palm oil, and paper used in its restaurants in the US and across the world, Yum! Brand is unsurprisingly one of the major companies that contribute to deforestation in order to get ahold of these commodities. According to the WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard in 2019, Yum rack up to a total of 157,776 tonnes of palm oil used in a year. 

Despite the corporation having made a commitment to eliminate deforestation from their global supply chains by 2020,  a CDP Consumer Deforestation Report found that not only Yum was not able to achieve that target,  but industry-wide deforestation goals were also not met. 

12. Procter & Gamble (P&G)

The consumer goods giant P&G was recently given a grade F in the scorecard released by Rainforest Action Network (RAN) when evaluating the major companies, banks and other parties who are involved in deforestation. P&G has been criticised for their inadequate action in addressing the impact of its sourcing of forest-risk commodities, and failure to ensure that their forest sourcing does not infringe on Indigenous rights and negatively impact threatened species. 

The WWF reported that P&G used a total of 463,295 tonnes of palm oil in 2019 and was not able to guarantee sourcing 100% sustainable palm oil. 

13. Ahold Delhaize

The supermarket chain Ahold Delhaize, which forms an umbrella over companies like Stop & Shop, Food Lion, Giant, Hannaford, and other brands, has said they aim to achieve zero deforestation and conversion by 2025. However in 2018, they launched a $100 million joint venture with Cargill to operate a new meat packaging plant supplying Ahold Delhaize’s stores in the US, as well as continue to source meat from another leading deforestation company, JBS. The fact that the zero deforestation goal currently only applies to the company itself and not to the entire corporate group is also telling of its commitment to deforestation.

Featured image by: Sandile Ndlovu

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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

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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

First posited in 1968 by American ecologist Garret Hardin, the Tragedy of the Commons describes a situation where shared environmental resources are overused and exploited, and eventually depleted, posing risks to everyone involved. Hardin argues that to prevent this, there should be some restrictions to the amount of usage, for example, property rights must be affixed. 

What is the Tragedy of the Commons?

The definition of the Tragedy of the Commons is an economic and environmental science problem where individuals have access to a shared resource and act in their own interest, at the expense of other individuals. This can result in overconsumption, underinvestment, and depletion of resources.

Garrett Hardin, an evolutionary biologist, wrote a paper called “The Tragedy of the Commons” in the journal Science in 1968. In  summary of the Hardin paper, the Tragedy of the Commons addressed the growing concern of overpopulation, and Hardin used an example of sheep grazing land when describing the adverse effects of overpopulation. In this case, grazing lands held as private property will see their use limited by the prudence of the land holder in order to preserve the value of the land and health of the herd. Grazing lands held in common will become over-saturated with livestock because the food the animals consume is shared among all herdsmen.

Hardin argues that individual short-term interest– to take as much of a resource as possible – is in opposition to societal good. If everyone was to act on this individual interest, the situation would worsen for society as a whole- demand for a shared resource would overshadow the supply, and the resource would eventually become entirely unavailable. 

Conversely, exercising restraint would yield benefits for all in the long-term, as the shared resource would remain available. 

Tragedy of the Commons Examples

Arguably the best examples of Tragedy of the Commons occur in situations that lead to environmental degradation. 

Among many things, pollution is caused by wastewater. As the number of households and companies increase and dump their waste into the water, the water loses its ability to clean itself. This results in water that is toxic to wildlife and the people that live around and rely on it. 


Another example of the Tragedy of the Commons lies in overfishing. In Canada, the Grand Banks fishery off the coast of Newfoundland was a means of livelihood for regional fishermen. Abundant in cod, the fishery allowed fishermen to catch as many cod as they desired without negatively impacting their population. 

Then, in the 1960s, advancements in technology allowed fishermen to catch vast quantities of cod, far more than before. However, with each passing season, the amount of cod deteriorated and by the 1990s, the fishing industry in the region collapsed because there wasn’t enough fish to go around. This situation where individual fishermen took advantage of opportunities to benefit themselves in the short term, even when their actions were clearly detrimental to society in the long term, encapsulates the self-preserving mindset behind the Tragedy of the Commons. These fishermen thought logically, but not collectively, which led to their downfall. 


The Tragedy of the Commons can also be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic. In its early days, people were generally wary of mixing with anyone outside their immediate family, leaving their homes less and working from home. However, another result of the pandemic was that people began to stock up on food and utilities. People likely assumed that everyone else would stock up as well and so the only solution was to preempt this scenario and stockpile food before the next person could. Again, people were thinking logically, but not collectively, and herein lies the relevance of the Tragedy of the Commons. Individuals took advantage of opportunities that benefited themselves, but spread out the harmful effects of their consumption across society. 

Retailers responded by imposing restrictions on the number of items one could buy, but it was too late. Entire grocery aisles were empty, wiped clean. 

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What About the Environment?

Shared resources that mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis are abused constantly. 

No single authority can pass laws that protect the entire ocean. Each country can only manage and protect the ocean resources along its coastlines, leaving the shared common space beyond any particular jurisdiction vulnerable to pollution. This has led to obscene amounts of ocean pollution, as seen in garbage patches that accumulate in the centre of circular currents, for example. This will affect everyone as these pollutants cycle through the marine food chain, and then humans as we consume fish. Another problem facing the oceans are dead zones, areas in lakes and oceans where no marine life can live because of the lack of oxygen caused by excessive pollution and fertiliser runoff. 

The atmosphere is another resource being used and abused, as are forests. Unregulated and illegal logging pose great risks to forests’ ability to store carbon. In some parts of the world, vast expanses of rainforests aren’t governed in a way that allows effective management for resource extraction. Timber producers are driven to take as much timber as possible as cheaply as possible, without considering the wider impacts of doing so. 

Poor governance exacerbates the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons. 

Who is Meant to Fix It?

Ideally, governments at the local, state, national and international levels would define and manage shared resources. However, there are problems with this. Management inside clear boundaries is quite straightforward, but more problematic are resources shared across jurisdictions. For example, at the international level, states are not bound by a common authority and may view restrictions on resource extraction as a threat to their sovereignty. Additionally, more difficulties arise when resources cannot be divided, such as in whale treaties when the fishing of the whales’ food source is separately regulated. 

Economist Scott Barrett at Columbia University in New York says that international law “has no teeth, so treaties are essentially voluntary. “Even when countries decide to take part in collective conservation efforts, they can simply pull out again when they want to,” as Canada did in 2011 when it pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol and when America withdrew from the Paris Agreement in late 2019 – though they rejoined shortly in the following year by the Biden Administration. 

As the global population increases and demand for resources follows, the downsides of the Commons become more apparent. Some may argue that this will test the role and practicality of nation-states, leading to a redefinition of international governance. Further, it may lead some to question the role of supranational governments, such as the UN or the World Trade Organization; as resources become more limited, some may argue that managing the commons may not have a solution at all. 

What Can Be Done?

A potential solution to this is to affix property rights to public spaces. For example, charging a toll to use a freeway or implementing a tax for dumping wastewater would reduce the number of users to those who act in the best interests of others, not only themselves. Other solutions could include government intervention or developing strategies to trigger collective behaviour, such as assigning small groups in a community a plot of land to look after. 

Overall, regulating consumption and use can reduce over-consumption and government investment in conservation and renewal of the resource can help prevent its depletion.

Featured image by: Matteo de Mayda

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.

Preliminary studies have identified a positive correlation between COVID-19-related mortalities and air pollution. There is also a plausible association of airborne particles assisting the viral spread. How does air pollution as an environmental health hazard contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in societies ? And how does it play a role in further affecting human health in this pandemic?

It has been widely established that air pollution compromises the respiratory system. According to the WHO, ambient air pollution causes 4.2 million premature deaths annually. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have discovered that excess pressure may be exerted on the patient’s respiratory system due to air pollution.  

How Air Pollution as an Environmental Health Hazard Could Contribute to the Spread of COVID-19

A previous ecological study conducted during the SARS pandemic of 2003 that affected parts of China, Hong Kong and Canada discovered a positive correlation between SARS-related deaths and ambient air pollution in both short-term and long-term exposure. Given the close relationship and similarities in the symptoms of COVID-19 and SARS, it is anticipated that a similar observation may be found in the COVID-19 pandemic. This provides an indication of how air pollution may affect a person infected with COVID-19. 

pre-print (i.e. studies awaiting peer-review) ecological study from Harvard University investigates whether long-term average exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 death in the US. The study found that even a small increase of 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 levels was associated with an 8% increase in COVID-19-related fatality.

Some scholars however, argue that an ecological study cannot be regarded as epidemiology due to ecological bias (i.e. lack of individual-level data), therefore it is unable to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. There are also multiple factors involved that may affect the results, for example, the temporal difference of the virus outbreak among the individual county, and the intervention time of the county to adopt physical distancing policies. Consequently, the study may overestimate the risk of COVID-19-related deaths owing to air pollution.     

This positive correlation between increased death rates due to COVID-19 and air pollution has also been observed in Italy. Northern Italy is one of the most polluted areas in Europe, where a higher level of mortality related to the COVID-19 virus was discovered. A study concluded that the high air pollution loading could be a co-factor causing the high fatality rate due to the COVID-19 infection.  

Prior exposure to air pollution may aggravate the health impacts of COVID-19 and increase the risk of death by suppressing immunity. A systematic review has identified that people with prior chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, respiratory system disease and cardiovascular disease could be more vulnerable to COVID-19 by triggering pro-inflammatory responses and causing immunity impairment.      

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Does Air Pollution Affect the Viral Spread of COVID-19?

It is believed that the main route of transmission of the virus is through human respiratory droplets and direct contact, according to the Joint Mission report from China in late February. Yet, it has also been hypothesised that the COVID-19 virus can be transmitted by particulate matter (PM) and aerosols. A preliminary experimental analysis was conducted which identified the gene of COVID-19 in an ambient PM sample in Italy, and concluded that PM may potentially act as a transporter of the virus, although the virulence of COVID-19 remains unknown (i.e. vitality of the virus). Scientists also suggest that PM may serve as an early indicator of the epidemic recurrence by identifying the virus genome in PM. 

Current Air Quality Improvement From Lockdowns

Many countries have been locked down to maintain physical distancing among citizens to slow down the viral spread of COVID-19. The lockdowns have not only helped to reduce viral transmission but also the air pollution. A preprint study in China estimated that the lockdown mitigated a quarter of PM2.5 emissions and improved the Air Quality Index, helping prevent monthly premature deaths of 24 000 to 36 000 people.

The NO2 level also dropped dramatically after the lockdown (NO2 irritates human airways and impairs immunity to lung infections). Another study from China estimated that the improved NO2 levels from January to March due to the imposed lockdowns helped prevent more than 8,000 NO2 -related deaths, 65% of which are due to cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

Fossil fuel burning is one of the major anthropogenic sources of air pollution. A study modelled that emissions from fossil fuel combustion is one of the major causes of air pollution, which contributes to 65% of additional mortality due to the exposure. Given that renewable energy is cleaner than fossil fuel burning, a transition to renewable energy is essential to mitigate the climate crisis.    

The plausible linkage between air pollution and viral spread still requires more thorough studies to confirm the hypothesis. Air pollution, on the other hand, has long been proving its harmful effect on human health and causes a burden on healthcare systems. The preliminary studies that have shown a possible link between air pollution exposure and COVID-19 related deaths, no matter how small, should be an indication that air pollution needs to be urgently tackled. A global transition to cleaner energy will help safeguard the health of humanity and prevent these unnecessary deaths.

Local governments should focus on mitigating air pollution to address the urgent issue of deaths caused by COVID-19, rather than aspire towards eliminating air pollution altogether. The positive effects of localised lockdown regulations in alleviating air pollution can be a blueprint towards this end. Without invoking a national mandate, discriminative regulations should be introduced that focus on areas more severely affected by COVID-19 or air pollution. Measures could include designating times for motor vehicle use, reducing smoke from agricultural and waste burning around cities, and pausing activities which create dust plumes such as construction while expanding public sanitation services and related employment to keep streets cleaner. 

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 

According to a recent analysis, the sixth mass extinction of wildlife on Earth is accelerating. More than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction and are likely to be lost within 20 years; the same number were lost over the whole of the last century. The scientists say that without the human destruction of nature, this rate of loss would have taken thousands of years and they warn that this may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilisation. 

The analysis, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at data on 29,000 land vertebrate species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species and BirdLife International. The scientists identified 515 species with populations below 1,000 and about half of these had fewer than 250 individuals remaining. 

What is a Mass Extinction Event?

A mass extinction is usually defined as a loss of about three quarters of all species in existence across the entire Earth over a “short” geological period of time. Given the vast amount of time since life first evolved on the planet, “short” is defined as anything less than 2.8 million years.

The Analysis

The land vertebrates on the brink of extinction, with fewer than 1,000 individuals left, include the Sumatran rhino, the Española giant tortoise and the harlequin frog. Historic data for 77 of these species shows that they had lost 94% of their populations in the last century. Further, more than 400 vertebrate species became extinct in the last century, extinctions that would have taken up to 10,000 years in the normal course of evolution, illustrating humanity’s profound effect on the planet and those that live on it. 

The analysis also showed that 388 species of land vertebrates had populations under 5,000 individuals and 84% lived in the same regions as the species with populations under 1,000, creating the conditions for a domino effect. The scientists warned that ‘extinction breeds extinction’, where close ecological interactions of species on the brink tend to move other species towards extinction, creating the domino effect. 

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sixth mass extinction
A graph showing the number of species with fewer than 1,000 individuals and number of species whose conservation status had been evaluated by the IUCN. These are the species most likely to be lost in the sixth mass extinction event (Source: PNAS).


The scientists say that the ongoing sixth mass extinction may be the most serious environmental threat to the persistence of civilisation, because it is irreversible. They say that it is caused by an ever-increasing population and consumption rates. Further, species are links in ecosystems and, as they disappear, the species they interact with are likely to disappear as well.

When a species dies out, the Earth’s ability to maintain ecosystem services is eroded to a degree. Humanity needs a relatively stable climate, flows of fresh water, agricultural pest and disease-vector control and pollination for crops, all services that will be impacted as the sixth mass extinction accelerates. 

Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University and one of the researchers of the analysis, says, “When humanity exterminates other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system. The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to the climate disruption to which it is linked.”

Consequences of the Sixth Mass Extinction

When the number of individuals in a population or species drops too low, its contributions to ecosystem functions and services become unimportant, its genetic variability and resilience is reduced and its contribution to human welfare may be lost. An example of this includes the overhunting of sea otters, the main predator of kelp-eating sea urchins. A population boom of urchins wreaked havoc on kelp forests in the Bering Sea, leading to the extinction of the kelp-eating Steller’s sea cow.

Another is the bison, which was a keystone species in North America. At one time, it was maintaining the entire ecosystem, supplying meat, robes and fertilisers to Native Americans, and later to Europeans. Is it estimated that 200 years ago, there were 30 to 60 million individuals, but overharvesting for meat and skins and land conversion for farming decimated most populations. By 1844, there were 325 individuals left. They have since recovered to 4,000 wild bison and 500,000 living in enclosures, but the species has not reclaimed its ecological role and its habitats- the prairies- have been mostly destroyed. 

Many endangered species are being affected by the wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, which poses a threat to human health, is a major cause of species extinction and is eroding the ecosystem services that are vital for our survival. The scientists note that the ban on wildlife trade imposed by the Chinese government could be a major conservation measure for many species on the verge of extinction if imposed properly. They propose including wild species for consumption as food as well as medicinal use and pets to curb the acceleration of the sixth mass extinction.

Previous Mass Extinction Events

There have been five mass extinction events during the last 450 million years, each destroying 70-95% of the species of plants, animals and microorganisms that existed previously. These events were caused by massive volcanic eruptions, depletion of ocean oxygen or collision with an asteroid. In each event, it took millions of years to regain the numbers of species comparable to those before the extinction event.

As such, an estimated 2% of the species that ever lived are alive today. Species extinction rates are today hundreds of thousands of times faster than the ‘normal’ rates occurring in the last tens of millions of years. The losses that we are seeing have mostly occurred since our ancestors developed agriculture 11 000 years ago. 

Can We Stop the Sixth Mass Extinction?

The scientists also propose classifying all species with less than 5 000 individuals as critically endangered on the IUCN list as well as implementing a global comprehensive binding agreement requiring parties to address the extinction crisis, especially through tackling the illegal and legal wildlife trade. 

Mark Wright, the director of science at WWF, says, “The numbers in this research are shocking. However, there is still hope. If we stop the land-grabbing and devastating deforestation in countries such as Brazil, we can start to bend the curve in biodiversity loss and climate change. But we need global ambition to do that.”

Humanity relies on biodiversity for its health and wellbeing. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is an example of the dangers of interfering with and damaging the natural world. The scientists urge that a booming human population, destruction of habitats, wildlife trade, pollution and the climate crises must all be urgently tackled. 

There is time to save species, but the window of opportunity is almost closed. We must save what we can, or lose the opportunity to do so forever. There will likely be more pandemics in the future if we continue destroying habitats and trading wildlife for consumption. The fate of humanity and most living species is at stake; it is therefore imperative that we act now. 

Permafrost is a ground layer under the Earth’s surface that has been frozen for a minimum of two years and as many as hundreds of thousands of years. However, warming temperatures under climate change is causing this permafrost to melt. Unfortunately, this is leading to an acceleration of climate change as the thawing soil releases greenhouse gases (GHGs), particularly methane, a gas with more potency than carbon dioxide. 

Permafrost is predominantly found in the northern hemisphere, constituting 25% of the ground type found there. Key areas for permafrost are the Arctic regions of Siberia, Canada, Greenland and Alaska. In the southern hemisphere, there is far less permafrost extent, however, some is found in the mountainous areas of the Andes, New Zealand’s Southern Alps and Antarctica. 


Modelled permafrost extent (2000-2016) from Obu et al. (2019)

As global temperatures rise due to global warming, there are a range of temperature predictions for future global average temperature increase depending on our emission pathway scenarios. However, as this is a global average, it doesn’t accurately represent how some areas will warm more than others. The Arctic is predicted to warm more drastically than any other area on the planet. This is evidenced not only by climate models predicting the future, but by observations over the last 30 years: the Arctic has warmed at roughly twice the rate of the rest of the globe, in a process known as Arctic amplification. This phenomena is caused by the retreat of sea ice as open water reflects less incoming radiation than the white sea ice, and by atmospheric heat transport from the equator.

While this phenomena presents a myriad of environmental issues, such as sea ice retreat and sea level rise, increasing temperatures are also resulting in a rapid thawing of permafrost. Permafrost contains a high content of frozen organic material. If this material thaws, it will begin to decompose, which releases GHGs, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Permafrost is one of the planet’s carbon sinks, storing around 1 400 Gt of carbon dioxide. Since 2018 humans have been pumping about 30-35Gt of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year, (down from 36.15Gt in 2017), and the planet is experiencing unprecedented warming. It is predicted that 3°C of warming by the end of the century will put about 280Gt of carbon dioxide and 3Gt of methane into the atmosphere from melting permafrost, with the warming effect of methane being 10-20 times greater than carbon dioxide. The additional GHGs in the atmosphere are accelerating climate change and the warming of the planet, which accelerates permafrost thaw further. This is known as a positive feedback mechanism. 


Infographic from NOAA Climate.gov and permafrost map by National Snow and Ice Data Centre, showing how permafrost works as a positive feedback mechanism

Permafrost thaw is an international issue that is accelerating each year. However, the urgency of the issue is prompting some solutions. For example, engineering-based solutions in the form of methane capture and transformation into energy is one idea, but due to the economic and logistical challenges, it is an idea in its infancy. 

However, there are some nature-based solutions that may be able to have local impact. For example, through habitat restoration. Sergey Zimov, a geophysicist and specialist in subarctic ecology, began working on Pleistocene Park, a scientific research station and nature reserve, assessing the benefits of ecosystem restoration on permafrost preservation, carbon sequestration and the albedo effect. Founded in 1996, Zimov ceded the project to his son and fellow scientist, Nikita Zimov, who focuses more on climate change prevention than Pleistocene ecology, saying that “there is only one theoretical chance to prevent that [permafrost thaw] from happening. We must restore the Ice Age ecosystem.” The pair believe returning grazing animals, similar to those found in the Pleistocene era to replace herds of bison, musk ox, reindeer, moose and woolly mammoths, would compact the snow during winter months. In theory, the increase in grazing animals in arctic regions would increase the compaction of the thin layer of snow, increasing the layer’s density, allowing for deeper freezing of the soil underneath, essentially protecting and strengthening the permafrost layer. However, this type of project proposes a multitude of unknown risks that accompany species reintroductions and rewilding projects

Similarly, researchers at the University of Edinburgh have investigated the novel approach of using plants to control the temperature of soils. By planting communities of trees, shrubs and mosses over permafrost layers, the plants can shade soil, lowering temperatures, and also extract water through their roots, which dries the soil allowing it to act as a better insulator. However, the research is in very early stages and requires a deeper understanding of how these different plant types interact with permafrost.

Overall, a simple way to reduce global warming is to reduce global GHG emissions in order to reduce the greenhouse effect. However, there are many political, social, economic and technological barriers that are preventing us from moving to a carbon neutral society. The challenge is not impossible and is the most feasible way to limit the loss of permafrost, and therefore, acceleration of climate change. 

Large-scale deep-sea mining operations will soon be undertaken on the international seabed. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) has drafted the long-awaited mining code and is anticipating granting licences to mine in the seabed for precious metals by this summer. What effects will deep-sea mining have on marine habitats and are there any alternatives? This piece has been republished in the run up to World Oceans Day on June 8 2021. 

It was discovered nearly 50 years ago that it was feasible to extract rare earth metals and minerals from the sea floor. Companies and countries have promised that they would start pulling valuable ores from the depths, owing to a rise in demand for batteries for electric cars and to store renewable energy, but commercial efforts have stalled for a variety of reasons, including massive startup costs and the lack of regulations. Until now.

Before deep-sea mining operations can become commercialised, they must adhere to this mining code in order to be granted licences by the International Seabed Authority, an organisation established by the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCOLS). The Code intends to provide the rules, regulations and technical guidelines for regulating mining contractor operations. Once approved, a 30-year license is granted to contractors allowing them to mine assigned ‘claim areas’ in parts of the international seabed.

What Are They Looking For? 

The seabed has an abundance of valuable metals such as copper, silver, zinc, manganese, cobalt and other rare earth metals. Three types of mineral deposits valuable to the mining industry are polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphide and cobalt crusts. 

Polymetallic nodules are found in the abyssal plains, ranging from depths of 3000 to 6000 meters. The abyssal plains cover 70% of the seabed, making it the largest habitat on the Earth’s surface. Areas where these nodules are found include the Clarion-Clipperton fracture zone (CCFZ) in the central Pacific Ocean. However, the area is not well understood in terms of its ecological function and biodiversity. 

Polymetallic sulphides contain prized metals including copper and gold. They can be found near one of the most productive areas in the ocean- the hydrothermal vents, which provide organic carbon for organisms in the nutrient-limited deep-sea environment. Many of these species are also endemic to these hydrothermal vent areas. 

Cobalt crust is formed by the settling of minerals in seawater on the rocky surface. Cobalt is one of the most essential components of electronic technology, particular for lithium-ion batteries. Deep-sea mining grinds the crust and transports the ore back to the surface, a process which generates plumes that cause particle suspension and blankets the water column with toxic materials. In addition, the seamount may contain a variety of organisms that are harmed by mining. 

An ecological risk assessment on the effects of deep-sea mining was conducted which attempts to evaluate the risk sources and perceived vulnerabilities of the mineral-rich habitat. It concluded that key habitats are vulnerable to habitat transformation due to the effects of deep-sea mining. 

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Understanding the Impacts of Deep-Sea Mining

There is limited knowledge about the deep-sea environment, especially about microorganisms; however, it is known that they play an irreplaceable role in its ecosystem. Recent studies have found that benthic bacteria sequester 200 million tons of carbon dioxide into the biomass on an annual basis. 

On top of that, microbial communities in these deep-sea habitats are highly diverse. Even in the most studied area- the CCFZ, with over 35 years of surveys, new species have been discovered in recent years. Given that it is difficult to cultivate deep-sea microbes due to their highly adaptive characteristics (i.e. ability to withstand high pressure and temperatures), habitat destruction may potentially result in the loss of these and other ecosystem services. 

There is also a prolonged effect of the disturbance on the deep-sea environment. A pioneer impact assessment named DISCOL has been conducted since 1989 which aims to examine the potential impact of future commercial manganese nodule mining in the seabed environment. Artificial disturbances had been made through dragging tracks on the seafloor with a device called a plough harrow. A long-term impact study called the Mining Impact Project shows that these tracks are still visible after 26 years and both the microbial communities and benthic animals have not recovered from the disturbance. 

Why Do We Need Deep-Sea Mining? 

A report conducted by the Institute for Sustainable Futures concluded that even under the ambitious target to undergo a global transition to 100% renewable energy supply by 2050, the demand can be met without deep-sea mining, and that its effects do not warrant the efforts. Additionally, the demand for metals changes overtime. Cobalt is one of the major minerals extracted through deep-sea mining and is one of the most expensive and critical metals for lithium-ion batteries. Many companies, including Tesla, intend to cut down on the use of cobalt batteries and use lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries instead.

Some enterprises including Microsoft and Apple are also facing lawsuits; they are accused of violating human rights by forcing children to conduct harmful work without offering safety equipment in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest cobalt-producing country in the world. This may also affect the demand of  cobalt in the future, encouraging the development of cobalt-free electronic products. 

What Are The Alternatives? 

Urban mining has been discussed in recent years, which recovers valuable minerals from electronics waste (E-waste) and metal scrap. Mining this waste has potential to benefit both the economy and society. E-waste is categorised as hazardous waste under the Basel Convention, however this has been largely ineffective in controlling the illegal traffic of e-waste. Ghana, as one of the largest receivers of e-waste, imports 150 000 tons of so-called second-hand electronics annually, according to Ghana’s e-waste Country Assessment in 2011, where over 30% was non-functional e-waste. Many of the Ghanaians also rely on open burning to extract metals, while unusable items are transferred to open dumping sites that contaminate the surrounding environment. 

Urban mining is also less expensive compared to conventional mining. A study says that the urban mining of copper and gold from cathode-ray tube televisions and printed circuit boards is 13 and 7 times cheaper than mining virgin metals respectively. 

Commencing on commercial deep-sea mining depends on three criteria claimed by Michael Lodge, secretary general of the ISA, namely the regulation (i.e. Mining Code), technology advancements and market price of the metals. In the last ISA meeting in 2019, delegates convened to review a draft of the Code. The latest draft was released in 2019 and is pending approval in the next meeting by July. The mining may commence as soon as 2023.  

Considering that the international seabed area covers multiple locations, there is still a lack of knowledge on the deep sea environment, including the abundance of sea life in these environments. Urban mining, on the other hand, may serve as an alternative to meet the demand for future technology development, solve public health issues in developing countries, as well as achieving sustainability by close-the-loop.

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