Unparalleled Biodiversity Loss Continues without Political Action and Ecosystem Valuation
Finding ways to value ecosystem health economically and to engage the world’s indigenous peoples in the process is key to saving biological diversity, a Worldwatch author suggests in the Institute’s most recent book. Such efforts are all the more urgent because the addition of more plant and animal species to key lists of those threatened or endangered shows no signs of slowing down, despite rising public awareness of the importance of biodiversity.
This World Biodiversity Day (May 22), Worldwatch Institute is raising awareness of biodiversity losses worldwide and what individuals and institutions can do to confront these trends. The current rate of species extinction is up to 1,000 times above the Earth’s normal extinction rate, a level of loss that has not occurred since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The Worldwatch Institute, in its recently released report State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, highlights the threats to biodiversity and methods for combating the exploitation and degradation of ecosystems and their services.
From 1980 to 2008, an average of 52 species per year moved one category closer to extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Endangered Species—a rate that shows no signs of slowing. Although mass extinctions have occurred on Earth throughout geologic time, the current loss of biodiversity is the first to be caused overwhelmingly by a single species: humans. The five principal pressures causing biodiversity loss are habitat change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change, all of which are almost exclusively human driven.
“The current model of consumer societies is destroying the planet and its resources,” said Bo Normander, director of Worldwatch Institute Europe and a contributing author to State of the World 2012. “This must change in order for the planet to sustain future generations.”
At the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, leaders made a commitment to preserve biological resources by signing the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), but there remains a fundamental lack of political will to act on biodiversity threats. In 2002, the CBD promised “a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss” by 2010, yet within those eight years, most countries failed to meet their targets.
To combat the loss of Earth’s natural capital, scientists strive to assign concrete values to natural resources with the hope that an economic appreciation of ecosystem services may facilitate improved planning and management of Earth’s systems. Yet progress on developing accurate, straightforward and widely accepted measures for assessing ecosystem values remains slow.
“Accurate valuation of ecosystem services is vital to create greater accountability and awareness of the ecological impact of our actions,” said Erik Assadourian, Worldwatch senior fellow and State of the World 2012 project co-director. “By understanding ecosystem services in monetary or physical terms, leaders can assess and improve the sustainability of their policies.”
Current international practices discount future generations by effectively valuing ecosystem services at zero. Such undervaluing is often a result of society’s ignorance of the full benefits that humans derive from an intact ecosystem. Thus, individuals make decisions based on the immediate financial gains of logging a forest, for example, instead of considering the “invisible” benefits of the forest, such as carbon sequestration, flood protection, and habitat for pollinators.
Valuing ecosystems and their services is difficult as knowledge is limited by the complexity of environmental systems. Many linkages between organisms are yet to be discovered, and slight perturbations may have dramatic, unforeseen consequences. Despite these challenges, scientists and politicians attempt to frame the benefits provided by ecosystems using relatable monetary or physical indices. The two most common methods are to create a common asset trust, which “propertizes” the public good without privatizing ecosystems; and to pay for ecosystem services, such as when farmers are paid to leave land fallow for improved soil health.
In State of the World 2012, Worldwatch provides several recommendations for enhancing ecosystem service valuation, including:
Manage ecosystem services on an appropriate scale: Ecosystem services must be evaluated on spatial and temporal scales, in order to determine which institution can effectively manage that ecosystem. Collaboration between scales of government and those managing the services is vital.
Include the global poor in valuation: The world’s poor and indigenous groups rely heavily on natural resources and common goods for sustenance and livelihood. Many attempts at valuing ecosystem services, such as designating a forest as a preserved trust, have excluded indigenous groups from their traditional sources of food and fuel—an approach that not only is unjust, but will also undermine the long-term success of these efforts.
In addition to these approaches to valuation, Worldwatch champions initiatives that protect biodiversity, such as urban gardening and beekeeping, inclusive forest protection, and the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), or zones in the world’s oceans or coastal waters where activities like fishing and mining are strictly regulated. These added protections increase biodiversity within the MPA, which in turn enriches the surrounding waters and ecosystems. Despite the known advantages of MPAs, they protect only 0.8 percent of the world’s oceans.
Worldwatch applauds these efforts to combat the loss of global biodiversity. But to truly protect biodiversity and value ecosystem services effectively, multinational cooperation is required. Worldwatch’s State of the World 2012, released in April 2012, focuses on steps in biodiversity protection and other areas that can be taken at Rio+20, the 20-year follow-up to the historic 1992 Rio Earth Summit, to make progress toward sustainable development.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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