Friday, September 30, 2016

Sixth Extinction Crisis

                Comments due by October 7, 2016

It’s frightening but true: Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day [1]. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century [2].

Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans. In fact, 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily those driving habitat loss, introduction of exotic species, and global warming [3]. Because the rate of change in our biosphere is increasing, and because every species’ extinction potentially leads to the extinction of others bound to that species in a complex ecological web, numbers of extinctions are likely to snowball in the coming decades as ecosystems unravel. 

Species diversity ensures ecosystem resilience, giving ecological communities the scope they need to withstand stress. Thus while conservationists often justifiably focus their efforts on species-rich ecosystems like rainforests and coral reefs — which have a lot to lose — a comprehensive strategy for saving biodiversity must also include habitat types with fewer species, like grasslands, tundra, and polar seas — for which any loss could be irreversibly devastating. And while much concern over extinction focuses on globally lost species, most of biodiversity’s benefits take place at a local level, and conserving local populations is the only way to ensure genetic diversity critical for a species’ long-term survival.

In the past 500 years, we know of approximately 1,000 species that have gone extinct, from the woodland bison of West Virginia and Arizona’s Merriam’s elk to the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, passenger pigeon and Puerto Rico’s Culebra parrot — but this doesn’t account for thousands of species that disappeared before scientists had a chance to describe them [4]. Nobody really knows how many species are in danger of becoming extinct. Noted conservation scientist David Wilcove estimates that there are 14,000 to 35,000 endangered species in the United States, which is 7 to 18 percent of U.S. flora and fauna. The IUCN has assessed roughly 3 percent of described species and identified 16,928 species worldwide as being threatened with extinction, or roughly 38 percent of those assessed. In its latest four-year endangered species assessment, the IUCN reports that the world won’t meet a goal of reversing the extinction trend toward species depletion by 2010 [5].

What’s clear is that many thousands of species are at risk of disappearing forever in the coming decades.

No group of animals has a higher rate of endangerment than amphibians. Scientists estimate that a third or more of all the roughly 6,300 known species of amphibians are at risk of extinction [6]. The current amphibian extinction rate may range from 25,039 to 45,474 times the background extinction rate [7].

Frogs, toads, and salamanders are disappearing because of habitat loss, water and air pollution, climate change, ultraviolet light exposure, introduced exotic species, and disease. Because of their sensitivity to environmental changes, vanishing amphibians should be viewed as the canary in the global coal mine, signaling subtle yet radical ecosystem changes that could ultimately claim many other species, including humans.


Birds occur in nearly every habitat on the planet and are often the most visible and familiar wildlife to people across the globe. As such, they provide an important bellwether for tracking changes to the biosphere. Declining bird populations across most to all habitats confirm that profound changes are occurring on our planet in response to human activities. 

A 2009 report on the state of birds in the United States found that 251 (31 percent) of the 800 species in the country are of conservation concern [8]. Globally, BirdLife International estimates that 12 percent of known 9,865 bird species are now considered threatened, with 192 species, or 2 percent, facing  an “extremely high risk” of extinction in the wild — two more species than in 2008. Habitat loss and degradation have caused most of the bird declines, but the impacts of invasive species and capture by collectors play a big role, too.


Increasing demand for water, the damming of rivers throughout the world, the dumping and accumulation of various pollutants, and invasive species make aquatic ecosystems some of the most threatened on the planet; thus, it’s not surprising that there are many fish species that are endangered in both freshwater and marine habitats. 

The American Fisheries Society identified 700 species of freshwater or anadromous fish in North America as being imperiled, amounting to 39 percent of all such fish on the continent [9]. In North American marine waters, at least 82 fish species are imperiled. Across the globe, 1,851 species of fish —  21 percent of all fish species evaluated —  were deemed at risk of extinction by the IUCN in 2010, including more than a third of sharks and rays. 


Invertebrates, from butterflies to mollusks to earthworms to corals, are vastly diverse — and though no one knows just how many invertebrate species exist, they’re estimated to account for about 97 percent of the total species of animals on Earth [10]. Of the 1.3 million known invertebrate species, the IUCN has evaluated about 9,526 species, with about 30 percent of the species evaluated at risk of extinction. Freshwater invertebrates are severely threatened by water pollution, groundwater withdrawal, and water projects, while a large number of invertebrates of notable scientific significance have become either endangered or extinct due to deforestation, especially because of the rapid destruction of tropical rainforests. In the ocean, reef-building corals are declining at an alarming rate: 2008’s first-ever comprehensive global assessment of these animals revealed that a third of reef-building corals are threatened.

Perhaps one of the most striking elements of the present extinction crisis is the fact that the majority of our closest relatives — the primates — are severely endangered. About 90 percent of primates — the group that contains monkeys, lemurs, lorids, galagos, tarsiers, and apes (as well as humans) — live in tropical forests, which are fast disappearing. The IUCN estimates that almost 50 percent of the world’s primate species are at risk of extinction. Overall, the IUCN estimates that half the globe’s 5,491 known mammals are declining in population and a fifth are clearly at risk of disappearing forever with no less than 1,131 mammals across the globe classified as endangered, threatened, or vulnerable. In addition to primates, marine mammals — including several species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises — are among those mammals slipping most quickly toward extinction. 

Through photosynthesis, plants provide the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat and are thus the foundation of most life on Earth. They’re also the source of a majority of medicines in use today. Of the more than 300,000 known species of plants, the IUCN has evaluated only 12,914 species, finding that about 68 percent of evaluated plant species are threatened with extinction.

Unlike animals, plants can’t readily move as their habitat is destroyed, making them particularly vulnerable to extinction. Indeed, one study found that habitat destruction leads to an “extinction debt,” whereby plants that appear dominant will disappear over time because they aren’t able to disperse to new habitat patches [11]. Global warming is likely to substantially exacerbate this problem. Already, scientists say, warming temperatures are causing quick and dramatic changes in the range and distribution of plants around the world. With plants making up the backbone of ecosystems and the base of the food chain, that’s very bad news for all species, which depend on plants for food, shelter, and survival.


Globally, 21 percent of the total evaluated reptiles in the world are deemed endangered or vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN — 594 species — while in the United States, 32 reptile species are at risk, about 9 percent of the total. Island reptile species have been dealt the hardest blow, with at least 28 island reptiles having died out since 1600. But scientists say that island-style extinctions are creeping onto the mainlands because human activities fragment continental habitats, creating “virtual islands” as they isolate species from one another, preventing interbreeding and hindering populations’ health. The main threats to reptiles are habitat destruction and the invasion of nonnative species, which prey on reptiles and compete with them for habitat and food.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Is it safe to extract the coal and oil already discovered?

                                              Comments due by September 30, 2016 (# 3)
The world’s working coal mines and oil and gas fields contain enough carbon to push the world beyond the threshold for catastrophic climate change, according to a report released on Thursday.
If all the existing fuel were to be burned, projects currently operating or under construction could be expected to release 942Gt CO2, said the report by US-based thinktank Oil Change International (OCI).
This exceeds the carbon limits that would most likely warm the world 1.5C and even over 2C above the pre-industrial average. These were limits agreed at last year’s climate conference in Paris.
It has been established for some time that the enormous unworked reserves claimed by fossil fuel companies contain vastly too much carbon to ever be burned safely. But OCI said that this was the first time an analysis had been done of how much greenhouse gas is stored in projects already working or under construction.
Founder of and climate campaign Bill McKibben said the report “change[d] our understanding of where we stand. Profoundly”.
It means that even if not a single new coal mine, oil or gas field were opened up, the carbon budget would be at risk, said OCI’s executive director Stephen Kretzmann.
Projected investment in new extraction sites and infrastructure over the next 20 years adds up to a staggering US$14tn, the report found.
“Continued expansion of the fossil fuel industry is now quite clearly and quantifiably climate denial,” said Kretzmann.
Emissions from developed fossil fuel reserves, plus projected land use and cement manufacture
 Photograph: Rystad Energy, International Energy Agency (IEA), World Energy Council, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
The OCI report said existing oil and gas fields alone would exceed the carbon budget for 1.5C – which is a limit some small island states say would finish them and scientists believe would wipe out most coral reefs.
James Leaton, research director at the Carbon Tracker thinktank which did much to popularise the concept of “unburnable carbon”, said research by Carbon Tracker in 2015 showed coal demand was declining so quickly that current reserves would be enough. But the picture was less clear for oil and gas.
“There is clearly no need for new coal mines to be developed if we are to stay within a 2C carbon budget,” said Leaton. “Because oil and gas production declines over time in any particular well, this may fall faster than the level of oil and gas demand in [a 2C scenario], in which case some new production would be needed. Depending on how much carbon budget you allocate to each fossil fuel, and the speed of the energy transition assumed, the window for new oil and gas will also start to close.”
In the UK, the government has committed to opening its shale gas resources to fracking. Ken Cronin, chief executive of the industry body UK Onshore Oil and Gas, said: “This report needs to look more deeply into the use of gas in a modern energy mix, looking at areas such as reformation of methane into hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, particularly for heating systems and potentially transport. The simple fact is that the best way to combat climate change is to remove coal ASAP and to do that you need to replace much of the coal capacity with gas.”
The OCI report did not take into account carbon capture and storage (CCS), which it argued is still at an “uncertain” stage of development. The International Energy Agency reported last week that CCS, which is fitted to emissions sources to trap carbon, was being rolled out at a rate of just one project every year.
Study author Greg Muttitt said it was imperative for governments to focus on shutting down new mines and fields before a sod was turned.
“Once an extraction operation is underway, it creates an incentive to continue so as to recoup investment and create profit, ensuring the product – the fossil fuels – are extracted and burned. These incentives are powerful, and the industry will do whatever it takes to protect their investments and keep drilling,” he said.
Ben Caldecott, director of the Sustainable Finance Programme at the University of Oxford Smith School said: “One direct implication of meeting climate targets are stranded upstream fossil fuel assets. These stranded assets need to be managed, particularly in terms of the communities that could be negatively impacted. Policymakers need to proactively manage these impacts to ensure a ‘just transition’.”
The report expands on a call made by former Kiribati president Anote Tong last year to stop opening new coal mines. China, the US and Indonesia, the world’s largest, third- and fifth-largest coal producers, have banned any new coal mines. In the US, the moratorium is only on public land.
But in Australia’s Galilee basin, there are nine proposed coal mines with a total lifetime emissions of 24Gt CO2. This includes the massive Adani Carmichael mine, which the Australian government has approved. The Australian Department of Environment would not comment on whether it had assessed the impact of the Carmichael mine on the global carbon budget.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Economic Growth and Sustainability

                                            Comments due by Sept. 23, 2016

– Until recently, the usual thinking among macroeconomists has been that short-term weather fluctuations don’t matter much for economic activity. Construction hiring may be stronger than usual in a March when the weather is unseasonably mild, but there will be payback in April and May. If heavy rains discourage people from shopping in August, they will just spend more in September.
But recent economic research, bolstered by an exceptionally strong El Niño – a complex global climactic event marked by exceptionally warm Pacific Ocean water off the coast of Ecuador and Peru – has prompted a rethink of this view.

Angela Merkel

German Europe or European Germany?

Hugo Drochon poses the question that Europe and the world can no longer avoid, and examines how Joschka Fischer, Otmar Issing, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and others address it.

Extreme weather certainly throws a ringer into key short-term macroeconomic statistics. It can add or subtract 100,000 jobs to monthly US employment, the single most-watched economic statistic in the world, and generally thought to be one of the most accurate. The impact of El Niño-related weather events like the one this year (known more precisely as “El Niño Southern Oscillation” events) can be especially large because of their global reach.
Recent research from the International Monetary Fund suggests that countries such as Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, and South Africa suffer adversely in El Niño years (often due to droughts), whereas some regions, including the United States, Canada, and Europe, can benefit. California, for example, which has been experiencing years of severe drought, is finally getting rain. Generally, but not always, El Niño events tend to be inflationary, in part because low crop yields lead to higher prices.
After two crazy winters in Boston, where I live, it would be hard to convince people that weather doesn’t matter. Last year, the city experienced the largest snow accumulationon record. Eventually, there was no longer any place to put it: four-lane highways narrowed to two lanes, and two-lane roads to one. Roofs collapsed and “ice dams” building up from gutters caused severe flooding. Public transport closed, and many people couldn’t get to their jobs. It was a slow-motion natural catastrophe that lasted for months.
The US as a whole did not have a winter as extreme as New England’s in the first part of 2015, and the effects of the weather on the country’s overall economy were subdued. True, New York City had some significant snowfalls; but no one would have paid much attention had the mayor been more competent in getting the streets plowed. Eastern Canada suffered much more, with severe winter weather playing a role (along with lower commodity prices) in the country’s mini-recession in the first half of the year.
This year’s winter is the polar opposite of last year’s. It was 68º Fahrenheit (20º Celsius) at Boston’s Logan Airport the day before Christmas, and the first speck of snow didn’t come until just before New Year’s Day. Trees and plants, sensing spring, started to blossom; birds were just as confused.
Last winter Boston was something of an anomaly. This year, thanks in part to El Niño, weird weather is the new normal. From Russia to Switzerland, temperatures have been elevated by 4-5º Celsius, and the weather patterns look set to remain highly unusual in 2016.
The effect on developing countries is of particular concern, because many are already reeling from the negative impact of China’s slowdown on commodity prices, and because drought conditions could lead to severe crop shortfalls. The last severe El Niño, in 1997-1998, which some called the “El Niño of the Century,” represented a huge setback for many developing countries.
The economic effects of El Niño events are almost as complex as the underlying weather phenomenon itself and therefore are difficult to predict. When we look back on 2016, however, it is quite possible that El Niño will be regarded as one of the major drivers of economic performance in many key countries, with Zimbabwe and South Africa facing drought and food crises, and Indonesia struggling with forest fires. In the American Midwest, there has lately been massive flooding.
There is a long history of weather having a profound impact on civil strife as well. Economist Emily Oster has argued that the biggest spikes in witch burnings in the Middle Ages, in which hundreds of thousands (mostly women) were killed, came during periods of economic deprivation and apparently weather-related food shortages. Some have traced the roots of the civil war in Syria to droughts that led to severe crop failure and forced a mass inflow of farmers to the cities.
On a more mundane level (but highly consequential economically), the warm weather in the US may very well cloud the job numbers the Federal Reserve uses in deciding when to raise interest rates. It is true that employment data are already seasonally adjusted to allow for normal weather differences in temperate zones; construction is always higher during spring than winter. But standard seasonal adjustments do not account for major weather deviations.
Overall, the evidence from past El Niños suggests that the current massive one is likely to leave a significant footprint on global growth, helping support economic recovery in the US and Europe, while putting even more pressure on already weak emerging markets. It is not yet global warming, but it is already a very significant event economically – and perhaps just a taste of what is to come.
(Rogoff/Project Syndicate)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Green Economy

                                                             Comments due by 9/16/2016

Sustainable development has been the overarching goal of the international community since the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992. Amongst numerous commitments, the Conference called upon governments to develop national strategies for sustainable development, incorporating policy measures outlined in the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21. Despite the efforts of many governments around the world to implement such strategies as well as international cooperation to support national governments, there are continuing concerns over global economic and environmental developments in many countries. These have been intensified by recent prolonged global energy, food and financial crises, and underscored by continued warnings from global scientists that society is in danger of transgressing a number of planetary boundaries or ecological limits.

With governments today seeking effective ways to lead their nations out of these related crises whilst also taking into account these planetary boundaries, green economy (in its various forms) has been proposed as a means for catalysing renewed national policy development and international cooperation and support for sustainable development. The concept has received significant international attention over the past few years as a tool to address the 2008 financial crisis as well as one of two themes for the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). This has resulted in a rapidly expanding literature including new publications on green economy from a variety of influential international organisations, national governments, think tanks, experts, non-government organisations and others.

Despite the growing international interest in green economy, negotiations between Member States on the concept in the lead up to Rio+20 were challenging. This was partly due to the lack of an internationally agreed definition or universal principles for green economy, the emergence of interrelated but different terminology and concepts over recent years (such as green growth, low carbon development, sustainable economy, steady-state economy etc.), a lack of clarity around what green economy policy measures encompass and how they integrate with national priorities and objectives relating to economic growth and poverty eradication, as well as a perceived lack of experience in designing, implementing and reviewing the costs and benefits of green economy policies.
Recent publications on green economy or green growth by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), the Green Economy Coalition, Stakeholder Forum, the Green Growth Leaders and many others have begun to address these knowledge gaps and demystify these concepts. Importantly, there is also emerging practice in the design and implementation of national green economy strategies by both developed and developing countries across most regions, including Africa, Latin America, the Asia-Pacific and Europe. This emerging practice can help to provide some important insights and much-needed clarity regarding the types of green economy policy measures, their scope with regard to various sectors and national priorities, and their institutional barriers, risks and implementation costs. This international experience may serve to alleviate concerns regarding the effective integration of green economy policies with national economic and social priorities and objectives, including the achievement of internationally agreed development goals.(ECOSAC)