South Korea is bringing back bears in a country of 52 million people – I went to find out how


Joshua Powell, UCLThe return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 popularised the idea of reintroducing long-lost species to modern habitats. While scientists are still trying to fully understand the ecological consequences, the wolf’s reintroduction likely benefited other species, illustrating how conservation can not just slow biodiversity loss, but even reverse it.

That project, however, took place in a vast protected wilderness. Many of the places where biologists now hope to reintroduce large wild animals – whether it’s lynx in Britain or cheetahs in India – are a little closer to where people live, with all of the potential problems that entails in terms of human-wildlife conflict.

In South Korea, a country of similar size and similar human population density to England, conservationists are in the process of restoring the native bear population, Asiatic black bears, or moon bears, to be precise. While slightly smaller than their North American cousins, these are still large wild animals, capable of causing fear and alarm and posing a risk to human life and property.

The head and shoulders of a large black bear with two brown stripes on its chest.
The Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), or moon bear.
Joshua Powell, Author provided

I wanted to find out how South Korea is managing this ambitious project, so I travelled to Jirisan National Park, a mountainous region in the far south of the Korean Peninsula.

By the 1990s, along with occasional sightings in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), Jirisan had become the last foothold of the Asiatic black bear in South Korea. An attempted eradication programme by the colonial Japanese regime of the early 20th century and overhunting following independence in 1945 meant bears had fared badly for some time. At the close of the century, there were thought to be just five wild bears left in the country, and the species was on the brink of extinction in South Korea.

These were not the only bears in the country though. A large population lingered on farms producing bear bile and body parts, which are used in traditional medicine, and bear meat. Since the 1990s, South Korea has cracked down on the bear part trade, but the remaining population of around 380 captive bears still substantially outnumbers those in the wild (around 70 in 2021).

A black bear's head looms behind bars.
A captive Asiatic black bear on a disused bear bile farm in Gangwon-do, South Korea.
Joshua Powell, Author provided

These farm bears might have seemed the ideal animals to rebuild a wild population. But the bears probably belonged to a range of different subspecies and were potential disease risks. Years of being fed by humans also meant that the bears could seek out contact – and cause conflict – with humans. Instead, bears were imported from China, Russia and North Korea. In 2004, the first six cubs were released into Jirisan.

Why did South Korea’s bear programme succeed?

No grand claims were made about reshaping the relationship between humans and the natural world, and no changes were promised to centuries-old methods of managing landscapes, ideas which often feature in debates about rewilding. Instead, conservationists in South Korea established a modest initial goal: returning a population of 50 bears to a single protected area.

Soft releases, in which bears are kept in pens to acclimate to their surroundings before being set free, and extensive monitoring of bears post-release, helped increase the likelihood of each released bear surviving. Bears that strayed too far were returned to the national park.

Captive breeding, underpinned by impressive veterinary expertise, has also helped the population grow. One milestone involved the world’s first successful use of artificial insemination in this genus of bear, a boon for maintaining genetic diversity in a small population. Bears injured by snares or traffic collisions have also been successfully returned to the wild.

An anaesthetised bear lies on a stretcher on top of a metal examination table.
Veterinarians prepare to transport a female bear following examination.
Joshua Powell, Author provided

The initial target of 50 bears was exceeded and the population now stands at over 70. A recent study found that some bears were now dispersing across South Korea, suggesting that Jirisan National Park may be close to reaching the limit of bears it can sustain.

This presents new challenges. Conservationists have, so far, been remarkably successful at reducing conflict between bears and people, and building support for restoring bears to Jirisan National Park with education programmes, presentations for residents and hikers, a centre where visitors can learn about the reintroduction programme and even the use of moon bear mascots for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics.

But the appearance of bears outside of the national park still attracts prime-time media coverage, which can hamper efforts to cultivate tolerance and maintain a reasonable dialogue with the public about the realities of living alongside bears. People feeding bears remains an issue, as does illegal snaring for game species, which can severely injure bears. As South Korea reaches the next stage of its reintroduction programme, is the country prepared to accept bears outside of a protected area?

A rocky mountain vista with streaks of snow.
Bukhansan National Park, near Seoul. Once home to leopards and tigers, could these mountains see bears again?
Joshua Powell, Author provided

It will be fascinating to follow these bears over the coming years as conservationists address these questions. And Asiatic black bears are just the start. South Korea has since established programmes to restore the red fox, which is surprisingly rare in the country, and the long-tailed goral, a goat-like mammal whose populations have been depleted by poaching and habitat loss.

These programmes will face challenges, but South Korea has shown considerable expertise in the field of mammal reintroductions. Expertise that other countries could well learn from.The Conversation

Joshua Powell, London NERC DTP PhD Researcher, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China’s efforts to save its wandering elephants are laudable, but let’s not forget its bloody conflicts with the giants


Bill Laurance, James Cook UniversityWild elephants are awe-inspiring — even if they’re trying to kill you, as I discovered in 2004.

At the time I was studying how poachers and loggers threaten native mammals in Africa’s Congo Basin. I was sneaking up on a herd of forest elephants when they suddenly charged, rushing at me like enraged, out-of-control bulldozers. With the angry animals hot on my heels, I barely escaped by diving into a tangle of vines, shuddering with fear but oddly enthralled by it all, too.

Many residents of southern China must be feeling similarly. A herd of 15 Asian elephants, led by adult females, departed last year from Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, near China’s border with Myanmar and Laos. Since then they’ve travelled about 500 kilometres northward, and are now approaching the bustling city of Kunming and its seven million inhabitants.

No one knows exactly where the elephants are going, or why. But two things are clear: the elephants were probably struggling to survive in their native habitat, and Chinese efforts to save the elephants clash with the nation’s aggressive strategies of investment and global development.

Hope for the homeless

As I’ve seen elsewhere, in Africa and Southeast Asia, hungry wild elephants can severely damage human crops, flattening gardens and orchards in their quest for a free meal.

During their sojourn in China, the behemoths — which can weigh over five tonnes as adults (more than three cars) — have indeed been helping themselves to farmers’ crops and anything else they deem edible from local villages and townships. In fact, they’ve caused more than US$1 million in damage to crops so far.

This whole journey has captured the imagination of millions of Chinese citizens, with state broadcaster CCTV carrying a 24-hour live feed of the spectacle.

At first blush, this sounds like a scenario that could go very badly for the elephants. When pachyderms and people collide, elephants usually lose.

But hope remains for the wandering herd. Asian elephants are a legally protected species in China.

Hundreds of police officers assisted by drones have been monitoring the intrepid animals, while wildlife officials are trying to steer them away from populated areas with food baits and roadblocks involving hundreds of trucks. So far, some 3,500 people have been evacuated temporarily to clear a path for the elephants.

Missing the big picture

Such efforts are laudable but misplaced. They address only the symptoms of environmental stress (displaced elephants) but not the “diseases” afflicting elephants in China and beyond.

Firstly, the wandering elephants may well have been forced to move because their home in southern China has been devastated by human development.

Even 15 years ago, when I first visited the Xishuangbanna region, the native rainforests there were being devastated, especially by clearing for exotic rubber-tree plantations.

Rubber-tree plantation in the Xishuangbanna region.
In southern China, most native rainforests have been felled for crops such as rubber-tree plantations, as shown here in the Xishuangbanna region.
William Laurance

As a result, only about 300 wild elephants survive in all of China today.

Secondly, even with government efforts since 2018 to ban domestic ivory trading, illegal ivory is still being consumed at a terrifying rate.

This bloody trade is one of the main drivers of elephant poaching in Asia and Africa. Chinese citizens working overseas have been widely implicated in wildlife smuggling activities, including illegal ivory.




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Finally, as it promotes new roads, dams and other large developments, China’s Belt & Road Initiative, which now spans 139 nations worldwide, is rapidly increasing the effects of habitat destruction and human persecution on elephants and other native wildlife.

In Latin America, for example, entrepreneurs and workers from China are causing a dramatic increase in illegal poaching of jaguars, the teeth and body parts of which are being used to produce certain traditional Chinese “medicines”.

China-funded road-construction project in the Congo Basin.
William Laurance

Take-home lessons

What can we learn from China’s wandering elephants? At the outset, it’s clear many people, in China and beyond, are motivated far more easily by large, charismatic animals such as elephants than they are by rather nebulous concepts like ecosystem loss and degradation.

So, as we seek environmental sustainability in our densely populated world, we need to tell more evocative stories that inspire hope and capture the popular imagination.




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China’s wandering elephants also show us nature often needs large expanses of habitat to survive.

The potential habitat for elephants in China has been severely reduced and fragmented, and now totals less than 250,000 hectares overall in the critical Xishuangbanna region.

Globally, scores of large-bodied species such as elephants and apex predators such as tigers are in big trouble because of the fatal one-two punch of habitat destruction and human persecution. To sustain these iconic species, we urgently need to conserve Earth’s remaining large ecosystems.

Further, China’s homeless elephants could give us a glimpse into the future. On a planet where most native ecosystems are being sliced and diced to meet humanity’s needs, and where the climate is changing apace, wild animals like the Chinese elephants may increasingly need to pull up roots and move to new territories.

Forest elephant killed by poachers in the Congo Basin.
A forest elephant killed by poachers in the Republic of Congo. The animal’s face was hacked off with machetes to remove its valuable ivory tusks.
William Laurance

At great expense and effort, China is attempting to save its beleaguered band of elephants as they search for a new home.

But as the nation responsible for more habitat destruction, wildlife poaching and greenhouse-gas emissions than any other, China bears a special responsibility to promote sustainable development — not just inside China but overseas as well.

Let’s applaud China’s efforts to save its wandering elephants while we bear in mind that, as a nation and economic superpower, it has far more left to do to ensure our planet remains liveable for vulnerable wildlife — and for us too.




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The Conversation


Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How climate change is erasing the world’s oldest rock art


This Warty Pig is part of a panel dated to more than 45,500 years in age.
Basran Burhan/Griffith University, Author provided

Jillian Huntley, Griffith University; Adam Brumm, Griffith University; Adhi Oktaviana, Griffith University; Basran Burhan, Griffith University, and Maxime Aubert, Griffith UniversityIn caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, ancient peoples marked the walls with red and mulberry hand stencils, and painted images of large native mammals or imaginary human-animal creatures.

These are the oldest cave art sites yet known — or at least the oldest attributed to our species. One painting of a Sulawesi warty pig was recently dated as at least 45,500 years old.

Since the 1950s, archaeologists have observed these paintings appear to be blistering and peeling off the cave walls. Yet, little had been done to understand why.

So our research, published today, explored the mechanisms of decay affecting ancient rock art panels at 11 sites in Sulawesi’s Maros-Pangkep region. We found the deterioration may have gotten worse in recent decades, a trend likely to continue with accelerating climate change.

These Pleistocene (“ice aged”) cave paintings of Indonesia have only begun to tell us about the lives of the earliest people who lived in Australasia. The art is disappearing just as we’re beginning to understand its significance.

Australasia’s rock art

Rock art gives us a glimpse into the ancient cultural worlds of the artists and the animals they may have hunted or interacted with. Even rare clues into early people’s beliefs in the supernatural have been preserved.

Climate change could erase ancient Indonesian cave art.

We think humans have been creating art of some kind in Australasia — which includes northern Australia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia — for a very long time. Used pigments are among the earliest evidence people were living in Australia more than 60,000 years ago.




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Tens of thousands of distinctive rock art sites are scattered across Australasia, with Aboriginal people creating many styles of rock art across Australia.

Until as recently as 2014, scholars thought the earliest cave art was in Europe — for example, in the Chauvet Cave in France or El Castillo in Spain, which are 30,000 to 40,000 years old. We now know people were painting inside caves and rockshelters in Indonesia at the same time and even earlier.

Hand stencils in one of the study sites at Leang Sakapao cave.
Linda Siagian, Author provided

Ongoing surveys throughout Australasia turn up new rock art sites every year. To date, more than 300 painted sites have been documented in the limestone karsts of Maros-Pangkep, in southern Sulawesi.

Cave paintings in Sulawesi and Borneo are some of the earliest evidence we have that people were living on these islands.

Tragically, at almost every new site we find in this region, the rock art is in an advanced stage of decay.

Big impacts from small crystals

To investigate why these prehistoric artworks are deteriorating, we studied some of the oldest known rock art from the Maros-Pangkep region, scientifically dated to between at least 20,000 and 40,000 years old.

Expanding and contracting salt crystals are causing rock art to flake off the cave walls.
Linda Siagian, Author provided

Given these artworks have survived over such a vast period, we wanted to understand why the painted limestone cave surfaces now appear to be eroding so rapidly.

We used a combination of scientific techniques, including using high-powered microscopes, chemical analyses and crystal identification to tackle the problem. This revealed that salts growing both on top of and behind ancient rock art can cause it to flake away.




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Indonesian cave paintings show the dawn of imaginative art and human spiritual belief


Salts are deposited on rock surfaces via the water they’re absorbed in. When the water solution evaporates, salt crystals form. The salt crystals then swell and shrink as the environment heats and cools, generating stress in the rock.

In some cases, the result is the stone surface crumbling into a powder. In other instances, salt crystals form columns under the hard outer shell of the old limestone, lifting the art panel and separating it from the rest of the rock, obliterating the art.

On hot days, geological salts can grow to more than three times their initial size. On one panel, for example, a flake half the size of a hand peeled off in under five months.

Climate extremes under global warming

Australasia has an incredibly active atmosphere, fed by intense sea currents, seasonal trade winds and a reservoir of warm ocean water. Yet, some of its rock art has so far managed to survive tens of thousands of years through major episodes of climate variation, from the cold of the last ice age to the start of the current monsoon.

Limestone karsts in a field
Limestone karsts of Maros and Pangkep Regencies, in South Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Shutterstock

In contrast, famous European cave art sites such as Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France are found in deep caves, in more stable (temperate) climates, so threats to rock art are different and generally weathering is less aggressive.

But now greenhouse gases are magnifying climatic extremes. In fact, global warming can be up to three times higher in the tropics, and the wet-dry phases of the monsoon have become stronger in recent decades, along with more numerous La Niña and El Niño events.




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The net effect is that temperatures are higher, there are more hot days in a row, droughts are lasting longer, and other extreme weather such as storms (and the flooding they cause) are more severe and frequent.

What’s more, monsoonal rains are now captured in rice fields and aquaculture ponds. This promotes the growth of art-destroying salt crystals by raising humidity across the region and especially in nearby caves, prolonging the shrink and swell cycles of salts.

Three people hold a torch to cave wall
Makassar’s culture heritage department, Balai Pelestarian Cagar Budaya, undertaking rock art monitoring in Maros-Pangkep.
Rustan Lebe/Griffith University, Author provided

What happens now?

Apart from the direct threats associated with industrial development — such as blasting away archaeological sites for mining and limestone quarrying — our research makes it clear global warming is the biggest threat to the preservation of the trpoics’ ancient rock art.

There’s a pressing need for further research, monitoring and conservation work in Maros-Pangkep and across Australasia, where cultural heritage sites are under threat from the destructive impacts of climate change.




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In particular, we urgently need to document the remaining rock art in great detail (such as with 3D scanning) and uncover more sites before this art disappears forever.

If humans are ultimately causing this problem, we can take steps to correct it. Most importantly, we need to act now to stop global temperature increases and drastically cut emissions. Minimising the impacts of climate change will help preserve the incredible artworks Australasia’s earliest people left to us.




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Indonesian cave paintings show the dawn of imaginative art and human spiritual belief


The Conversation


Jillian Huntley, Research Fellow, Griffith University; Adam Brumm, Professor, Griffith University; Adhi Oktaviana, PhD Candidate, Griffith University; Basran Burhan, PhD candidate, Griffith University, and Maxime Aubert, Professor, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China’s Tiangong space station: what it is, what it’s for, and how to see it


China Manned Space Engineering Office

Paulo de Souza, Griffith UniversityChina’s space program is making impressive progress. The country only launched its first crewed flight in 2003, more than 40 years after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. China’s first Mars mission was in 2020, half a century after the US Mariner 9 probe flew past the red planet.

But the rising Asian superpower is catching up fast: flying missions to the Moon and Mars; launching heavy-lift rockets; building a new space telescope set to fly in 2024; and, most recently, putting the first piece of the Tiangong space station (the name means Heavenly Palace) into orbit.

What is the Tiangong space station?

Tiangong is the successor to China’s Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space laboratories, launched in 2011 and 2016, respectively. It will be built on a modular design, similar to the International Space Station operated by the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency. When complete, Tiangong will consist of a core module attached to two laboratories with a combined weight of nearly 70 tonnes.

The core capsule, named Tianhe (Harmony of Heavens), is about the size of a bus. Containing life support and control systems, this core will be the station’s living quarters. At 22.5 tonnes, the Tianhe capsule is the biggest and heaviest spacecraft China has ever constructed.

The Tianhe module will form the core of the space station, with other modules to be added later to increase the size of the station and make more experiments possible.
Saggitarius A / Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The capsule will be central to the space station’s future operations. In 2022, two slightly smaller modules are expected to join Tianhe to extend the space station and make it possible to carry out various scientific and technological experiments. Ultimately, the station will include 14 internal experiment racks and 50 external ports for studies of the space environment.

Tianhe will be just one-fifth the size of the International Space Station, and will host up to three crew members at a time. The first three “taikonauts” (as Chinese astronauts are often known) are expected to take up residence in June.




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A troubled launch

Tianhe was launched from China’s Hainan island on April 29 aboard a Long March 5B rocket.

These rockets have one core stage and four boosters, each of which is nearly 28 metres tall - the height of a nine-storey building - and more than 3 metres wide. The Long March 5B weighs about 850 tonnes when fully fuelled, and can lift a 25-tonne payload into low Earth orbit.

During the Tianhe launch, the gigantic core stage of the rocket – weighing around 20 tonnes – spun out of control, eventually splashing down more than a week later in the Indian Ocean. The absence of a control system for the return of the rocket to Earth has raised criticism from the international community.




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However, these rockets are a key element of China’s short-term ambitions in space. They are planned to be used to deliver modules and crew to Tiangong, as well as launching exploratory probes to the Moon and eventually Mars.

Despite leaving behind an enormous hunk of space junk, Tianhe made it safely to orbit. An hour and 13 minutes after launch, its solar panels started operating and the module powered up.

Completion and future

Tianhe is now sitting in low-Earth orbit (about 400km above the ground), waiting for the first of the ten scheduled supply flights over the next 18 months that it will take to complete the Tiangong station.

A pair of experiment modules named Wentian (Quest for Heavens) and Mengtian (Dreaming of Heavens) are planned for launch in 2022. Although the station is being built by China alone, nine other nations have already signed on to fly experiments aboard Tiangong.

How to see the Tiangong space station

Tianhe is already visible with the naked eye, if you know where and when to look.

A video shot from New Zealand shows the tumbling chunk of rocket from Tianhe’s launch, followed by the bright dot of the space station module itself.

To find out when the space station might be visible from where you are, you can check websites such as n2yo.com, which show you the station’s current location and its predicted path for the next 10 days. Note that these predictions are based on models that can change quite quickly, because the space station is slowly falling in its orbit and periodically boosts itself back up to higher altitudes.

The station orbits Earth every 91 minutes. Once you find the time of the station’s next pass over your location (at night – you won’t be able to see it in the daytime), check the direction it will be coming from, find yourself a dark spot away from bright lights, and look out for a tiny, fast-moving spark of light trailing across the heavens.The Conversation

Paulo de Souza, Professor, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Forget about the trade spat – coal is passé in much of China, and that’s a bigger problem for Australia



Greg Baker/AP

Hao Tan, University of Newcastle; Elizabeth Thurbon, UNSW; John Mathews, Macquarie University, and Sung-Young Kim, Macquarie University

Australian coal exports to China plummeted last year. While this is due in part to recent trade tensions between Australia and China, our research suggests coal plant closures are a bigger threat to Australia’s export coal in the long term.

China unofficially banned Australian coal in mid-2020. Some 70 ships carrying Australian coal have reportedly been unable to unload in China since October.

This is obviously bad news for Australia’s coal exporters. But even if the ban is lifted, there’s no guarantee China will start buying Australian coal again – at least not in huge volumes.

China is changing. It’s announced a firm date to reach net-zero emissions, and governments in eastern provinces don’t want polluting coal plants taking up prime real estate. It’s time Australia faced reality, and reconsidered its coal export future.

Coal ship unloads at Chinese port
China’s coal import quotas are hurting Australian exporters.
Wang Kai/AP

First, the coal ban

In May last year, China’s government effectively banned the import of Australian coal, by applying stringent import quotas. As of last month coal exports to China from Newcastle, Australia’s busiest coal exporting port, had ceased.

In 2019, Australia exported A$13.7 billion worth of coal to China. This comprised A$9.7 billion in metallurgical coal for steel making and A$4 billion in thermal coal for electricity generation.

The latest official Australian data shows these export levels fell dramatically between November 2019 and November 2020. Comparing the two months, metallurgical and thermal coal exports to China were down 85% and 83% respectively.




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Several Chinese provinces experienced power blackouts in late 2020. China’s state-backed media said the shortages were unrelated to the ban on Australian coal. Instead, they blamed cold weather and the recovery in industrial activity after the pandemic.

We dispute this claim. While Australian coal accounts for only about 2% of coal consumption in China, it helps maintain reliable supply for many power stations in China’s southeast coastal provinces.

Coal mining in China mostly occurs in the western provinces. Southeast coastal provinces are largely economically advanced and no longer produce coal. Instead, power stations in those provinces import coal from overseas.

This coal is cheaper than domestic coal, and often easier to access; transport bottlenecks in China often hinder the movement of domestic coal.

Coal mine at Gunnedah in NSW
Australian thermal coal helps supplement China’s domestic supply.
Rob Griffith/AP

Beyond the trade tensions

Experience suggests trade tensions between Australia and China will eventually ease. But in the long run, there is a more fundamental threat to Australian coal exports to China.

Data from monitoring group Global Coal Tracker shows between 2015 and 2019, China closed 291 coal-fired power generation units in power plants of 30 megawatts (MW) or larger, totalling 37 gigawatts (GW) of capacity. For context, Australia decommissioned 5.5 GW of coal-fired power generation units between 2010 and 2017, and currently has 21 GW of coal-fired power stations.

The closures were driven by factors such as climate change and air pollution concern, excess coal power capacity, and China’s move away from some energy-intensive industries.

Our recently published paper revealed other distinctive features of the coal power station closures.




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First, China’s regions are reducing coal power capacity at different rates and scales. In the nation’s eastern provinces, the closures are substantial. But elsewhere, and particularly in the western provinces, new coal plants are being built.

In fact, China’s coal power capacity increased by about 18% between 2015 and 2019. It currently has more than 1,000 GW of coal generation capacity – the largest in the world.

Second, we found retired coal power stations in China had much shorter lives than the international average. Guangdong, an economically developed region of comparable economic size to Canada, illustrates the point. According to our calculation, the stations in that region had a median age of 15 years at closure. In contrast, coal plants that closed in Australia between 2010 and 2017 had a median age of 43 years.

coal plant in China
Coal plant closures have been most marked in China’s east.
AP

This suggests coal power stations in China are usually retired not because they’ve reached the end of their productive lives, but rather to achieve a particular purpose.

Third, our study showed decisions to decommission coal power stations in China were largely driven by government, especially local governments. This is in contrast to Australia, where the decision to close a plant is usually made by the company that owns it. And this decomissioning in China is usually driven by a development logic.

Coal plant closures there have been faster and bigger than elsewhere in the country, as governments replace energy- and pollution-intensive industries with advanced manufacturing and services.

And as these regions become richer, the value of land occupied by coal power plants and transmission facilities grows. This gives governments a strong incentive to close the plants and redevelop the sites.

In coming years, southeast China will increasingly shift to renewable-based electricity and electric power transmitted from western provinces.

Man covers mouth
Air pollution concerns are helping drive China’s move away from coal-burning for power.
Ng Han Guan/AP

Securing our energy future

Coal power stations in China’s eastern coastal regions will continue to close in coming years, and power generation capacity will be redistributed to western provinces. For reasons outlined above, that means power generation in China will increasingly rely on domestic coal rather than that from Australia.

China’s coal exit is in part due to its strategy to peak its carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2060. Australia must realistically appraise its coal export prospects in light of the long-term threat posed by shifts in China and other East Asian nations.

The Morrison government, and industry, should re-double efforts to rapidly expand renewable energy in Australia. Then we can leave coal behind, and emerge as a renewable energy superpower.




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The Conversation


Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; John Mathews, Professor Emeritus, Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University, and Sung-Young Kim, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Discipline of Politics & International Relations, Macquarie School of Social Sciences, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China’s Belt and Road mega-plan may devastate the world’s oceans, or help save them



Shutterstock

Mischa Turschwell, Griffith University; Christopher Brown, Griffith University, and Ryan M. Pearson, Griffith University

China’s signature foreign policy, the Belt and Road initiative, has garnered much attention and controversy. Many have voiced fears about how the huge infrastructure project might expand China’s military and political influence across the world. But the environmental damage potentially wrought by the project has received scant attention.

The policy aims to connect China with Europe, East Africa and the rest of Asia, via a massive network of land and maritime routes. It includes building a series of deepwater ports, dubbed a “string of pearls”, to create secure and efficient sea transport.

All up, the cost of investments associated with the project have been estimated at as much as US$8 trillion. But what about the environmental cost?

Coastal development typically damages habitats and species on land and in the sea. So the Belt and Road plan may irreversibly damage the world’s oceans – but it also offers a chance to better protect them.

A map showing sea and land routes planned under the Belt and Road initiative.
A map showing sea and land routes planned under the Belt and Road initiative.
Shutterstock

Controversial deals

China’s President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road initiative in 2013. Since then, China has already helped build and operate at least 42 ports in 34 countries, including in Greece, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. As of October this year, 138 countries had signed onto the plan.

The Victorian government joined in 2018, in a move that stirred political controversy. Those tensions have heightened in recent weeks, as the federal government’s relationship with China deteriorates.




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Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews recently reiterated his commitment to the deal, saying: “I think a strong relationship and a strong partnership with China is very, very important.”

However, political leaders signing up to the Belt and Road plan must also consider the potential environmental consequences of the project.

Dan Andrews in Beijing
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is committed to the Belt and Road initiative.
Twitter

Bigger ports and more ships

As well as ports, the Belt and Road plan involves roads, rail lines, dams, airfields, pipelines, cargo centres and telecommunications systems. Our research has focused specifically on the planned port development and expansion, and increased shipping traffic. We examined how it would affect coastal habitats (such as seagrass, mangroves, and saltmarsh), coral reefs and threatened marine species.

Port construction can impact species and habitats in several ways. For example, developing a site often requires clearing mangroves and other coastal habitats. This can harm animals and release carbon stored by these productive ecosystems, accelerating climate change. Clearing coastal vegetation can also increase run-off of pollution from land into coastal waters.




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Ongoing dredging to maintain shipping channels stirs up sediment from the seafloor. This sediment smothers sensitive habitats such as seagrass and coral and damages wildlife, including fishery species on which many coastal communities depend.

A rise in shipping traffic associated with trade expansion increases the risk to animals being directly struck by vessels. More ships also means a greater risk of shipping accidents, such as the oil spill in Mauritius in July this year.

Seagrass in the Pacific Ocean
Dredging can cause sediment to smother seagrass.
iStock

Ocean habitat destroyed

Our spatial analysis found construction of new ports, and expansion of existing ports, could lead to a loss of coastal marine habitat equivalent in size to 69,500 football fields.

These impacts were proportionally highest in small countries with relatively small coastal areas – places such as Singapore, Togo, Djibouti and Malta – where a considerable share of coastal marine habitat could be degraded or destroyed.

Habitat loss is particularly concerning for small nations where local livelihoods depend on coastal habitats. For example, mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass protect coasts from storm surges and sea-level rise, and provide nursery habitat for fish and other marine species.

Our analysis also found more than 400 threatened species, including mammals, could be affected by port infrastructure. More than 200 of these are at risk from an increase in shipping traffic and noise pollution from ships. This sound can travel many kilometres and affect the mating, nursing and feeding of species such as dolphins, manatees and whales.

A manatee
Noise pollution from ships can affect threatened species such as manatees.
Shutterstock

But there are opportunities, too

Despite these environmental concerns, the Belt and Road initiative also offers an opportunity to improve biodiversity conservation, and progress towards environmental targets such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

For example, China could implement a broad, consistent environmental framework that ensures individual infrastructure projects are held to the same high standards.

In Australia, legislation helps prevent damage to wildlife from port activities. For example, go-slow zones minimise the likelihood of vessels striking iconic wildlife such as turtles and dugongs. Similarly, protocols for the transport, handling, and export of mineral concentrates and other potentially hazardous materials minimise the risk of pollutants entering waterways.




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The Belt and Road initiative should require similar environmental protections across all its partner countries, and provide funding to ensure they are enacted.

China has recently sought to boost its environment credentials on the world stage – such as by adopting a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2060. The global nature of the Belt and Road initiative means China is in a unique position: it can cause widespread damage, or become an international leader on environmental protection.The Conversation

Mischa Turschwell, Research Fellow, Griffith University; Christopher Brown, Senior Lecturer, School of Environment and Science, Griffith University, and Ryan M. Pearson, Research Fellow, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.