This is a place for the free and honest exchange of ideas about many of the ecological and environmental issues that we face on regular basis. You are encouraged to contribute and share your thoughts with your colleagues in a frank but respectful style. The commentary is NOT moderated so please act responsibly. Let us prove Hardin wrong, at least in this space, cooperation is the way out of the tragedy of the commons!!!!
We have already posted ten "stories" that we promised to do during this semester. The following, however, is for extra credit and is the response of George Monbiot to a couple of questions. Enjoy
Why is implacable growth a threat to the existence of life on the planet?
Never-ending growth simply cannot be sustained on a finite planet. The promise of growth is used as a means of deflecting social conflict: If the economy keeps growing, we are told, inequality doesn't matter, however extreme it becomes, as all will be rich. Well, it hasn't worked out like that: The rich are now able to capture almost all the increment; wages have stagnated despite rising labor productivity; far from trickling down, wealth is still seeping upwards. But even if it did work, this merely exchanges a deferred political crisis for an environmental crisis.
In the pre-coal economy, industrial growth was repeatedly undermined by agricultural collapse, as both competed for the same resources: land (industry needed it for growing fuelwood and fodder for horses) and labor. So growth kept stalling and reversing. Coal meant that rather than relying on annual productivity (of timber, grass, oats etc.), industry could exploit the concentrated productivity of millions of years. It amplified the effects of labor. It allowed agriculture and industry to live alongside each other, ensuring that industrial growth did not rely on starvation. The economic transformation was miraculous. But it had a number of costs, and by far the greatest, in the long run, was the assault on the natural world.
We are urgently in need of a new, coherent economic model, that provides prosperity without compromising future prosperity, that does not rely on destroying the more-than-human world.
Why will a continuing "shift from small to large farms ... cause a major decline in global production"?
There is a long-established inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce. In other words, the smaller they are, the greater the yield per hectare. This observation has been repeated in many parts of the world.
The most plausible explanation appears to be that small farmers use more labor, and more committed labor (generally family members), per hectare than big farmers.
What this means is that farm consolidation (often assisted by international agencies) is likely to be damaging to productivity, and threatening to world food supplies. Land grabbing by foreign corporations and sovereign wealth funds (which brings together the traditions of enclosure and colonialism) is disastrous for the rural poor. It is also disastrous -- especially when it results in the replacement of subsistence crops with crops grown for animal feed or biofuels -- for global food security.
Make the case for being "deviant and proud."
Our identity is shaped by the norms and values we absorb from other people. Every society defines and shapes its own according to dominant narratives, and seeks either to make people comply or to exclude them if they don't. These norms and values are often handed down from on high: We absorb and replicate the worldview of those who possess power, the phenomenon Antonio Gramsci called cultural hegemony.
Neoliberalism insists that we are defined by competition, and are essentially selfish and acquisitive. This turns out to be a myth: As a paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology points out, Homo economicus -- the neoliberal conception of people as maximizing their own self-interest at the expense of others - is an excellent description of chimpanzees and a very bad description of human beings. We simply don't work like this. Humans are distinguished from other mammals by an enhanced capacity for empathy, an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare and an ability to create moral norms that generalize and enforce these tendencies. These traits emerge so early in our lives that they appear to be innate: We have evolved to be this way.
But the dominant narrative tells us that we are very different creatures. It celebrates selfishness and greed and pushes us to conform to a social and economic model that rewards them. When we are forced into a hole that doesn't fit, the result is psychological damage. As the professor of psychoanalysis Paul Verhaeghe points out, the neoliberal transition has been accompanied by a spectacular rise in self-harm, eating disorders, depression, performance anxiety, social phobia and loneliness.
So if you don't fit in, and feel at odds with the world, it could be because you have retained the human values you were supposed to have discarded. You have deviated from the social norms. You should be proud to have done so.
The United States and China are the world's largest carbon emitters , so the 2014 agreement by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping to reduce their countries' greenhouse gas emissions represented a major shift in momentum for addressing the effects of climate change.
Both countries committed to substantial emissions-reduction efforts over the next 10 to 15 years, with the understanding that they would continue to grow more ambitious with their efforts in the future. The pledges were fundamental to each country's national commitments for the Paris Agreement, adopted during the United Nations' 2015 climate conference and awaiting signatures this month at the United Nations inNew York City.
Once a minimum of 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of total global greenhouse gases sign on, the agreement will come into effect. Already 100 countries are expected to attend the U.N. meeting on Earth Day this April 22.
An energy explosion
While China vowed to put a peak on its growing carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2030, a new report from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the London School of Economics and Political Science argues that the past year brought a changing economic and energy landscape. This is because China's rapid growth, which consumed tremendous amounts of energy and produced record-setting emissions, is slowing.
China's economic model over the past few decades — like that of many other developing countries — was based on heavy investment in construction and related industries, such as steel and cement, in order to expand the nation's infrastructure. Such industries are energy-intensive and in China relied heavily on coal, which produces large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions .
Now that much of China's infrastructure build-out is slowing, the demand for steel, cement and other building materials is decreasing, while at the same time China is expanding energy investments in hydroelectric, nuclear, wind and solar power.
In fact, the increase in China's renewable energy generation is expected be larger than energy-investment increases in the European Union, the United States and Japan combined, according to the 2013 World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency (IEA).
These promising shifts in energy investment are not unique to China. In the United States, the Energy Information Administration suggests that in the coming year, more new solar electricity-generating capacity will come online than natural gas, wind or petroleum combined.
Of that amount, two-thirds came from first-time buyers, according to the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute, a leading source on addressing climate change through market-based solutions. The most-promising trend shows older established companies — like Owens Corning, Procter & Gamble and HP — joining well-publicized new industry leaders like Amazon, Google and Ikea in making the transition toward renewable energy purchases. For example, last year, Owens Corning signed an agreement with Chicago-based Invenergy for 125 megawatts of capacity, equivalent to the power needed for 30,000 households or more, from a wind farm being built in Texas.
Beyond industry — beyond government — a third, large-scale stakeholder is innovating in the context of climate change: academia. Responding to a growing demand from their students and faculty to transition away from fossil fuels, colleges and universities such as Ohio State University and the University of Oklahoma are among the partners with the largest U.S. green power contracts, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Chinese energy evolution
Like recent progress in the United States and European Union, China's energy landscape has continued to diversify, according the Grantham report. Hydroelectric, nuclear, wind and solar power are all expanding and accounted for more than 11 percent of the nation's primary energy consumption by the end of 2014.
Perhaps most notably, coal consumption, which powered so much of China's forward momentum in the previous decade, saw no growth in 2014 and actually declined in 2015.
Whether China's emissions peak has actually crested, the trends there and elsewhere are becoming more evident: Nations and companies across the world are making the transition to clean energy alternatives and putting their money behind those investments in order to foster new, innovative paths to a lower-emission future.
Global perspectives have shifted toward encouraging nations to finally respond to climate change, but the window for action to avoid catastrophic climate impacts is limited. New technology is opening opportunities to reduce global emissions, and China's move toward renewable energies is at the forefront, such as their world-leading number of solar-voltaic installations for power generation.
It's up to the rest of the world to continue to look forward, not back, to enhance global prosperity, reduce risks to communities, and sustain healthy ecosystems on which people depend.
Eating more fruit and vegetables and cutting back on red and processed meat will make you healthier. That’s obvious enough. But as chickens and cows themselves eat food and burn off their own energy, meat is a also major driver of climate change. Going veggie can drastically reduce your carbon footprint.
This is all at a personal level. What about when you multiply such changes by 7 billion people, and factor in a growing population?
In our latest research, colleagues and I estimate that changes towards more plant-based diets in line with the WHO’s global dietary guidelinescould avert 5m-8m deaths per year by 2050. This represents a 6-10% reduction in global mortality.
Food-related greenhouse gas emissions would also be cut by more than two thirds. In all, these dietary changes would have a value to society of more than US$1 trillion – even as much as US$30 trillion. That’s up to a tenth of the likely global GDP in 2050. Our results are published in the journal PNAS.
Future projections of diets paint a grim picture. Fruit and vegetable consumption is expected to increase, but so is red meat consumption and the amount of calories eaten in general. Of the 105 world regions included in our study, fewer than a third are on course to meet dietary recommendations.
A bigger population, eating a worse diet, means that by 2050 food-related GHG emissions will take up half of the “emissions budget” the world has for limiting global warming to less than 2℃.
To see how dietary changes could avert such a doom and gloom scenario, we constructed four alternative diets and analysed their health and environmental impacts: one reference scenario based on projections of diets in 2050; a scenario based on global dietary guidelines which includes minimum amounts of fruits and vegetables, and limits to the amount of red meat, sugar, and total calories; and two vegetarian scenarios, one including eggs and dairy (lacto-ovo vegetarian), and the other completely plant-based (vegan).
Millions of avoidable deaths
We found that adoption of global dietary guidelines could result in 5.1m avoided deaths per year in 2050. Vegetarian and vegan diets could result in 7.3m and 8.1m avoided deaths respectively. About half of this is thanks to eating less red meat. The other half comes thanks to eating more fruit and veg, along with a reduction in total energy intake (and the associated decreases in obesity).
There are huge regional variations. About two thirds of the health benefits of dietary change are projected to occur in developing countries, in particular in East Asia and South Asia. But high-income countries closely follow, and the per-person benefits in developed countries could actually be twice as large as those in developing countries, as their relatively more imbalanced diets leave greater room for improvement.
China would see the largest health benefits, with around 1.4m to 1.7m averted deaths per year. Cutting red meat and reducing general overconsumption would be the most important factor there and in other big beneficiaries such as the EU and the US. In India, however, up to a million deaths per year would be avoided largely thanks to eating more fruit and vegetables.
Russia and other Eastern European countries would see huge benefits per-person, in particular due to less red meat consumption. People in small island nations such as Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago would benefit due to reduced obesity.
Vegans vs climate change?
We estimated that adopting global dietary guidelines would cut food-related emissions by 29%. But even this still wouldn’t be enough to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions in line with the overall cutbacks necessary to keep global temperature increases below 2°C.
To seriously fight climate change, more plant-based diets will be needed. Our analysis shows if the world went vegetarian that cut in food-related emissions would rise to 63%. And if everyone turned vegan? A huge 70%.
What’s it worth?
Dietary changes would have huge economic benefits, leading to savings of US$700-1,000 billion per year globally in healthcare, unpaid informal care and lost working days. The value that society places on the reduced risk of dying could even be as high as 9-13% of global GDP, or US$20-$30 trillion. Avoided climate change damages from reduced food-related greenhouse gas emissions could be as much as US$570 billion.
Putting a dollar value on good health and the environment is a sensitive issue. However, our results indicate that dietary changes could have large benefits to society, and the value of those benefits makes a strong case for healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets.
The scale of the task is clearly enormous. Fruit and vegetable production and consumption would need to more than double in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia just to meet global dietary recommendations, whereas red meat consumption would need to be halved globally, and cut by two thirds in richer countries. We’d also need to tackle the key problem of overconsumption. It’s a lot to chew on.
DURING the summer of 1940, I was an 11year old living with my family in a
low income apartment in Washington, D.C. We were within easy walking
distance of the National Zoo and an adjacent strip of woodland in Rock Creek
Park. I lived most of my days there, visiting exotic animals and collecting
butterflies and other insects with a net that I had fashioned from a broom
handle, coat hanger and cheesecloth. I read nature books, field guides and past
volumes of National Geographic. I had already conceived then of a world of life
awaiting me, bottomless in variety.
Seventysix years later, I have kept that dream. As a teacher and scientist I
have tried to share it. The metaphor I offer for biological diversity is the magic
well: The more you draw, the more there is to draw.
But today the dream is at risk. Civilization is at last turning green, albeit
only pale green. Our attention remains focused on the physical environment —
on pollution, the shortage of fresh water, the shrinkage of arable land and, of
course, the great, wrathful demon that threatens all our lives, human forced
climate change. But Earth’s living environment, including all its species and all
the ecosystems they compose, has continued to receive relatively little attention. This is a huge strategic mistake. If we save the living environment of
Earth, we will also save the physical, nonliving environment, because each
depends on the other. But if we work to save only the physical environment, as
we seem bent on doing, we will lose them both.
So, what exactly is the current condition of the living environment, in
particular its biological diversity and stability? How are we handling this
critical element of Earth’s sustainability?
To begin, how many species of organisms are known on the planet? Here,
our knowledge is pathetically weak. At the present time, about two million
species have been discovered, described and given a Latinized scientific name.
But how many are there actually, known and unknown? Putting aside the
bacteria and a distinctive group of microbes called the archaea (which I like to
call together the dark matter of biology because so little is understood of their
diversity), the best estimate we have of all the rest (the fungi, algae, plants and
animals) is roughly 10 million, give or take a million.
Except for the vertebrates (consisting of 63,000 described species of
birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fishes) and the flowering plants
(with approximately 270,000 species), relatively little is collectively known
about millions of kinds of fungi, algae and most diverse of all, the insects and
other invertebrate animals. And that matters, a lot: These least understood
minions are the foundation of the living world. They are the little things that
run the Earth.
In short, we live on a little known planet. E.T. and other alien biologists
visiting Earth would, I suspect, be appalled at our weak knowledge of our
homeland. They would be mystified by the scant attention humanity gives to
the lifeforms on which our existence depends.
The one major reserve in the United States that has been subjected to a
complete census is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Fifty thousand
hours of field work there by specialists and assistants have yielded records of
3/13/2016 The Global Solution to Extinction The New York Times
18,000 species of animals and microorganisms alone, with 40,000 to 60,000
considered likely on the roster when all transients, as well as rare and
undescribed species, have been registered.
The mapping of Earth’s biodiversity was not, as many assume, mostly
completed in the 19th and 20th centuries. It has only begun. The study of
biological diversity is absurdly slow. Today, only about 18,000 new species are
being discovered and described each year. If we continue at this rate (I’ve
described only about 450 new ant species in my own lifetime), the task of
mapping life on Earth, or what is left of it, will not be completed until the 23rd
That brings me to the extinction rate of species around the world. With
data on the best known vertebrate species, and a lot of additional information
from fossil studies and genetics, we can put the fraction of species
disappearing each year at upward of a 1,000 times the rate that existed before
the coming of humans.
Most of this loss is occurring in tropical countries, and especially tropical
forests on islands. But to bring it home to the United States, consider that
from 1895 to 2006, 57 species and distinct geographic races of freshwater
fishes were driven to extinction, which is 10 percent of the total previously
alive; hence the rate of extinction was just under 900 times that which existed
before the coming of humans.
The global conservation movement, pioneered by the United States, has
raised awareness of nature’s plight, and stimulated a great deal of excellent
research. It has slowed the hemorrhaging of species, but is still a long way
from stopping it. Conservation efforts are concentrated on the roughly one fifth
of vertebrate species worldwide that are ranked as endangered to some
degree. We have managed to stabilize or reverse the decline of onefifth of the
species in this group. A better record has been achieved within the United
States by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which has brought more species back to health than have been lost in the same time period to
All this is progress, but the prospects for the rest of the century remain
grim. The global conservation movement is like a surgeon in an emergency
room treating an accident victim: He has slowed the bleeding by half.
Congratulations, we might say — even though the patient will be dead by
Unless we wish to pauperize the natural world drastically and
permanently, believing that later generations will be smart enough to find a
way to bring equilibrium to the land, seas and air, then we, the current
inheritors of this beautiful world, must take more serious action to preserve
the rest of life.
There is only one rational way to accomplish this goal, and that is to bring
the extinction rate back to the level that existed before the worldwide
expansion of human populations. The disappearance of natural habitat is the
primary cause of biological diversity loss at every level — ecosystems, species
and genes, all of them. Only by the preservation of much more natural habitat
than previously envisioned can extinction be brought close to a sustainable
The only way to save upward of 90 percent of the rest of life is to vastly
increase the area of refuges, from their current 15 percent of the land and 3
percent of the sea to half of the land and half of the sea. That amount, as I and
others have shown, can be put together from large and small fragments
around the world to remain relatively natural, without removing people living
there or changing property rights. This method has been tested on a much
smaller scale at the national and state park levels within the United States.
This step toward sustained coexistence with the rest of life is partly a
practical challenge and partly a moral decision. It can be done, and to great
and universal benefit, if we wish it so. I have to think that the dream of a boy from so long ago has a chance to
Edward O. Wilson, a professor emeritus at Harvard University, is the author of
“Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.”
Comments due by March 14, 2016
— In the expanding realm ruled by Randal J. Kirk,
sliced apples don’t brown. Salmon grow twice as fast without swimming
upriver to spawn. Beloved cats are reborn.
And male mosquitoes are unleashed with the sole mission to mate, pass
on a gene that kills their offspring, and die.
A few decades ago, the foods and creatures nurtured by Mr. Kirk would
have been found only in dystopian fantasies like those written by Margaret
Atwood. But Mr. Kirk’s company, Intrexon, is fast becoming one of the world’s
most diverse biotechnology companies, with ventures ranging from unloved
genetically engineered creatures to potential cancer cures and gene therapies,
gasoline substitutes, cloned kittens and even glowinthedark Dino Pet toys
made from microbes.
Until recently, Mr. Kirk, 62, was a relatively unknown, self made
billionaire, buying up or investing in companies in the biotech world. So when
Intrexon acquired the British company Oxitec last summer, it attracted little attention as he extended his reach into genetically modified insects.
But that move has thrust Mr. Kirk into the forefront of a scramble to
control the Zika virus, suspected of causing babies to be born with tiny heads
and damaged brains. It is rampant in Latin America and threatening the
While Zika was not on his radar when the deal was announced, Mr. Kirk
now appears to be the prescient owner of a potential bioweapon — Oxitec’s
genetically engineered mosquitoes, which he says could save millions of people
from Zika by causing the population of wild disease transmitting mosquitoes
to self destruct.
“I think that we have the only safe, effective, field proven and readyto-deploy
solution,” Mr. Kirk, who is usually called R.J., said in an interview in
his office here overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. In Piracicaba, Brazil,
the population of wild mosquitoes has fallen 82 percent in the neighborhood
where the mosquitoes are being tested, he said.
If his plans to sell the engineered mosquitoes succeed, Mr. Kirk will fortify
his near cultlike status among some investors and colleagues who marvel at
his shrewd (and somewhat lucky) investments.
Perhaps more important, a victory against the rapidly spreading epidemic
could weaken opposition to genetically engineered organisms of all sorts,
propelling many others out of the lab, onto the dinner table or into the
Now Mr. Kirk must persuade federal agencies, foreign governments and
nonprofit health organizations to place orders. He must counter caution from
the World Health Organization and federal officials, who question whether the
technique will be effective on a large scale. And he must overcome qualms
about genetic engineering that have prompted opposition to the mosquitoes in
the Florida Keys and elsewhere.
“We don’t have experience about living transgenic mosquitoes in the air,”
said Dr. Artur Timerman, an infectious disease specialist in Brazil. “What will
be the midterm or long term consequences of this?”
Mr. Kirk is assembling a powerful lobbying effort, employing the law firm
Sidley Austin in Washington as well as relying on one of Intrexon’s board
members, Cesar Alvarez, the senior chairman of the prominent law firm
Greenberg Traurig, and Intrexon’s head of corporate communications, Jack
Bobo, who once directed biotechnology trade policy at the State Department.
Dr. Luciana Borio, acting chief scientist at the Food and Drug
Administration, told a House subcommittee on Wednesday that the agency
was “greatly expediting” Oxitec’s application to test the mosquitoes in the
Florida Keys and would issue a draft environmental assessment very soon.
But when asked by Representative Morgan Griffith, a Republican who
represents the Virginia district in which Mr. Kirk has a farm, Dr. Borio said the
F.D.A. would not eliminate the opportunity for the public to then comment on
“What we don’t know right now is where the public stands on this in the
setting of Zika,” she said later in the hearing.
Golden Age of Biotech
Selling his mosquitoes to combat an international epidemic could help
relieve the pressure Mr. Kirk is under to prove that Intrexon is more than just
a collection of odd science projects, and that it can actually make money and
fulfill his vision for a new golden age of biotechnology.
He considers this time to be a seminal moment in history, one in which
the rapidly improving ability to read and write — and rewrite — the DNA code
of life will make it possible to engineer all manner of organisms to perform
“I think this is the most significant industrial vector to occur in history,”
he said, comparing it to semiconductor technology that gave rise to
smartphones and the web.
And the same DNA tools can be applied to numerous areas. Intrexon’s
scientists, he says, “don’t care if they are working on a primary human T cell or
an avocado.” Reflecting that vision, Intrexon uses the web domain name
The engineering of life is often called synthetic biology, a vaguely defined
term meant to convey more systematic genetic manipulation than the cutting
and pasting of a single gene that gave rise to early biotechnology companies
like Amgen and Genentech. At its most distant point, synthetic biologists
would sit at a computer designing life forms from scratch, then hit “print” and
have the necessary DNA made to order to be inserted into a cell.
Numerous companies are moving into the field, but Intrexon is “literally
the elephant in the room of the synthetic biology industry,” said John
Cumbers, chief executive of SynBioBeta, a fledgling trade group.
His supporters say that if anyone can pull off such an enterprise it is R. J.
Kirk, whom they call an uncommon visionary and quick study, though he lacks
formal training in science. When Mr. Kirk tells people, as he often does, that
he is just a country lawyer, they know they’re about to get a schooling in
biology or business, interlaced with references to history, philosophy and
“He has an astonishing grasp of science,” said Dr. Samuel Broder, a
former director of the National Cancer Institute who now runs Intrexon’s
health division. Dr. Broder recalled one instance in which it took him a day to
understand the intricacies of a genetic disease. Mr. Kirk, after hearing Dr.
Broder’s explanation, got it in five minutes.
Even the hedge fund manager Thomas U. Barton, who made his mark as a skeptical shortseller, gushes. “He understands all businesses,” he said.
Still, there are skeptics. It is hard to judge the strength of Intrexon’s core
technology, known as UltraVector, which is a computerized system for putting
together modular DNA pieces to make complex genetic circuits. The company,
saying it wants to protect its trade secrets, has not published articles about it
in scientific literature. Some startup companies, not Intrexon, have taken the
lead in the hot new genome editing technique called Crispr.
The biggest criticism is that Intrexon keeps announcing new acquisitions
and new collaborations, dozens of them in all. Yet no product made with the
company’s technology has reached the market, and it is not clear when any
“There’s a mixture here of spectacle and speculation,” said Jim Thomas of
the nonprofit ETC Group, which says that synthetic biology needs to be more
rigorously regulated. “What’s curious about this is the way in which they are
putting together all these controversial and often failing one
and trying to wrap them up in a fancy synthetic biology front.”
Intrexon’s shares have fallen to about $37 from near $70 in July, though
biotech stocks in general have also fallen. The company’s market value is $4.3
billion, making Mr. Kirk’s 53 percent worth over $2 billion.
One big commercial opportunity could be Intrexon’s pilot project to use
genetically altered microbes to turn natural gas, which is cheap and abundant,
into isobutanol, a liquid fuel that can be used in cars. Investors want to see if
Intrexon’s partner, the energy giant Dominion, commits to building a
commercial plant, which Mr. Kirk hopes could happen as early as this year.
And the Oxitec mosquitoes, while not something Intrexon developed
itself, offer a bonus that Mr. Kirk could not have predicted. The mosquitoes
were developed mainly to fight dengue fever, and that alone, Mr. Kirk said,
made it worthwhile to pay about $160 million for Oxitec.
3/6/2016 A Biotech Evangelist Seeks a Zika Dividend The New York Times
But because Zika is spread by the same type of mosquito, the Oxitec
insects, which contain a lethality gene — can be used. When the male
mosquitoes are released to mate with wild females, the offspring die before
Protected areas such as rainforests occupy more than one-tenth of the Earth’s landscape, and provide invaluable ecosystem services, from erosion control to pollination to biodiversity preservation. They also draw heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and store it in plants and soil through photosynthesis, yielding a net cooling effect on the planet.
Determining the role protected areas play as carbon sinks — now and in decades to come — is a topic of intense interest to the climate-policy community as it seeks science-based strategies to mitigate climate change. Toward that end, a study in the journal Ambio estimates for the first time the amount of CO2 sequestered by protected areas, both at present and throughout the 21st century as projected under various climate and land-use scenarios.
Based on their models and assuming a business-as-usual climate scenario, the researchers projected that the annual carbon sequestration rate in protected areas will decline by about 40 percent between now and 2100. Moreover, if about one-third of protected land is converted to other uses by that time, due to population and economic pressures, carbon sequestration in the remaining protected areas will become negligible.
“Our study highlights the importance of protected areas in slowing the rate of climate change by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in plants and soils, especially in forested areas,” said Jerry Melillo, the study’s lead author. Melillo is a distinguished scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and former director of the MBL’s Ecosystems Center. “Maintaining existing protected areas, enlarging them and adding new ones over this century are important ways we can manage the global landscape to help mitigate climate change.”
Based on a global database of protected areas, a reconstruction of global land-use history, and a global biogeochemistry model, the researchers estimated that protected areas currently sequester 0.5 petagrams (500 billion kilograms) of carbon each year, or about 20 percent of the carbon sequestered by all land ecosystems annually. Using an integrated modeling framework developed by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, they projected that under a rapid climate-change scenario that extends existing climate policies; keeps protected areas off-limits to development; and assumes continued economic growth and a 1 percent annual increase in agricultural productivity, the annual carbon sequestration rate in protected areas would fall to about 0.3 petagrams of carbon by 2100.
When they ran the same scenario but allowed for possible development of protected areas, they projected that more than one-third of today’s protected areas would be converted to other uses. This would reduce carbon sequestration in the remaining protected areas to near zero by the end of the century. (The protected areas that are not converted would be the more marginal systems that have low productivity, and thus low capacity to sequester carbon.)
Based on this analysis, the researchers concluded that unless current protected areas are preserved and expanded, their capacity to sequester carbon will decline. The need for expansion is driven by climate change: As the average global temperature rises, so, too, will plant and soil respiration in protected and unprotected areas alike, thereby reducing their ability to store carbon and cool the planet.
“This work shows the need for sufficient resources dedicated to actually prevent encroachment of human activity into protected areas,” said John Reilly, one of the study’s coauthors and the co-director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.
The study was supported by the David and Lucille Packard foundation, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Virtually everyone in the scientific community agrees that ensuring sufficient food supplies for a surging human population, which is set to grow by 2.4 billion by mid-century, will require serious work. Indeed, we have not even succeeded at providing enough food for today’s population of 7.3 billion: Nearly 800 million people currently are starving or hungry, and another couple billion do not get enough micronutrients. But there is no such consensus about how to address the food-security problem.
The scientific community is split between two main approaches: “tinker with agricultural details” (TAD) and “mend societal fundamentals” (MSF). While the former approach has support from a clear majority, the latter is more convincing.
To be sure, the TAD camp has identified many important problems with current food production and distribution systems, and addressing them could indeed improve food security. Yields could be increased by developing better crop varieties. Water, fertilizer, and pesticides should be used more efficiently. Maintaining tropical forests and other relatively natural ecosystems would preserve critical ecosystem services, especially soil fertility, pollination, pest control, and climate amelioration. The trend toward rising meat consumption should be reversed. Stricter regulation of fisheries and ocean pollution would maintain the supply of marine protein essential to many people. Waste in food production and distribution should be reduced. And people should be educated to choose more sustainable and nutritious foods.
Achieving these goals, TAD supporters recognize, would require policymakers to give food security high political and fiscal priority, in order to support the needed research and action. Responsibility for launching programs to distribute food more equitably would also fall to governments.
But the TAD approach is incomplete. Not only would its short-term goals be extremely difficult to achieve without more fundamental societal changes; even if they were attained, they would probably prove inadequate in the medium term, and certainly in the long term.
To see why, let us suppose that, in 2050, the TAD goals have all been reached. More food is available, thanks to higher agricultural yields and waste-reducing improvements in storage and distribution. Improved environmental policies mean that most of today’s forests are still standing and no-fishing zones are widely established and enforced. Ecosystems are becoming stronger, with many corals and plankton evolving to survive in warmer, more acidic water. Add an uptick in vegetarianism, and it appears that the global temperature rise could be limited to 3º Celsius.
As a result, the world could avoid famines by mid-century. But, in a human population of 9.7 billion, hunger and malnutrition would be proportionately the same as they are in today’s population of 7.3 billion. In other words, even with such an extraordinary and unlikely combination of accomplishments and good luck, our food-security predicament would still be with us.
The reason is simple: Our societies and economies are based on the flawed assumption that perpetual growth is possible on a finite planet. To ensure global food security – not to mention other fundamental human rights – for all, we need to recognize our limitations, in terms of both social and biophysical factors, and do whatever it takes to ensure that we do not exceed them.
Based on this conviction, the MSF approach demands that governments take steps to empower women in all areas of society, and ensure that all sexually active people have access to modern birth control, with women free to have an abortion, if they so choose. At the same time, governments must address inequality of wealth, and thus of food, not least by curbing corporate dominance.
Short of bringing the global population down to sustainable levels, MSF reforms are the world’s only hope. But, as it stands, implementing them seems unlikely. The United States, the country that consumes the most, is moving in the opposite direction: women are struggling to hold onto their reproductive rights, wealth distribution is becoming increasingly skewed, and corporations are becoming even more powerful.
If this trend continues, in 2050, governance systems will be even more poorly equipped to deal with the fundamental problems of perpetual population and consumption growth or wealth inequality. As environments deteriorate from climate change, toxification, and loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, people will have less time and energy for governance reform aimed at reducing inequality or preserving the environment. As a result, those in power will feel less pressure to arrange systems to provide food to those who need it most.
The social-biophysical system is replete with chicken-and-egg subsystems. Given that there is no obvious single vulnerable point in the system to initiate change, governments must address a range of issues simultaneously. Key starting points include purging politics of “big money”; introducing a more progressive tax system that effectively caps the income of the extremely wealthy; ensuring that policymakers have a basic level of scientific understanding; and strengthening women’s rights, including access to free contraception.
Just as social and environmental problems can be mutually reinforcing, so can actions aimed at strengthening our social and environmental fundamentals. Only by focusing on these fundamentals, rather than merely tinkering with the details of food production, can intrinsic systemic linkages work to the advantage of future generations.