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



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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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Why is there so much furore over China’s Belt and Road Initiative?


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.

NSW has joined China, South Korea and Japan as climate leaders. Now it’s time for the rest of Australia to follow



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Tim Nelson, Griffith University and Joel Gilmore, Griffith University

It’s been a busy couple of months in global energy and climate policy. Australia’s largest trading partners – China, South Korea and Japan – have all announced they will reach net-zero emissions by about mid-century. In the United States, the incoming Biden administration has committed to decarbonising its electricity system by 2035.

These pledges have big implications for Australia. With some of the best renewable resources in the world, we have much to gain from the transition. And this week, the New South Wales government embraced the opportunity.

Its new A$32 billion Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap will, among other things, support the construction of 12 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity by 2030. This is six times the capacity of the state’s Liddell coal-fired power station, set to close in 2023.

The roadmap was developed by NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean through extensive consultation with industry and others, including ourselves. While we believe a national carbon price is the best way to reduce emissions, the NSW approach nonetheless sets an example for other states looking to increase renewable energy capacity. So let’s take a closer look at the plan.

NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean
The authors worked with NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean, pictured, to help devise the policy.
Dean Lewins/AAP

What’s the roadmap all about?

The roadmap acknowledges that within 15 years, three-quarters of NSW’s coal-fired electricity supply is expected to reach the end of its technical life. It says action is needed now to ensure cheap, clean and reliable electricity, and to set up NSW as a global energy superpower.

The plan involves a coordinated approach to transmission, generation and storage. By 2030, the government aims to:

  • deliver about 12 gigawatts of new transmission capacity through so-called “renewable energy zones” in three regional areas by 2030. It would most likely be generated by wind and solar

  • support about 3 gigawatts of energy storage to help back up variable renewable energy supplies. This would involve batteries, pumped hydro, and “hydrogen ready” gas peaking power stations

  • attract up to A$32 billion in private investment in regional energy infrastructure investment by 2030

  • support more than 6,300 construction and 2,800 ongoing jobs in 2030, mostly in regional NSW

  • reduce NSW’s carbon emissions by 90 million tonnes.

The plan also aims to see the average NSW household save about A$130 a year in electricity costs, although this might be hard to achieve in practice. And regional landholders hosting renewable projects on their properties are expected to earn A$1.5 billion in revenue over the next 20 years.

The Liddell coal-fired power station
12 gigawatts of new renewables capacity is about six times the capacity of NSW’s Liddell coal-fired power station.
Shutterstock

Giving generators options

One of the most innovative aspects of the NSW proposal is that generators will have two options when it comes to selling their electricity.

First, the government will appoint an independent “consumer trustee” to purchase electricity from generators at an agreed price – giving the generators the long-term certainty they need to invest. The trustee would then sell this electricity either directly to the market, or through contracts to retailers.

But the trustee will encourage generators to first seek a better price by finding their own customers, such as energy consumers and other electricity retailers.




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This system is different to the approach adopted in Victoria and the ACT, where government contracts remove any incentive for generators to participate in the energy market. Over time, this limits market competition and innovation.

The NSW plan improves on existing state policies in another way – by aligning financial incentives to the physical needs of the system. The Consumer Trustee will enter into contracts with projects that produce electricity at times of the day when consumers need it, and not when the system is already oversupplied.

While this won’t be easy for the trustee to model, this approach is likely to benefit consumers more than in other jurisdictions where lowest-cost projects seem to be preferred, irrespective of whether the energy they produced is needed by consumers.

One shortcoming of the roadmap is it does not financially reward existing low-emissions electricity generators in NSW, nor does it charge carbon-heavy electricity producers for the emissions they produce. This could be corrected in the future by integrating the policy into a nationally consistent carbon price, which transfers the cost of carbon pollution onto heavy emitters.

A $50 note sticking out of a power socket
Electricity generators will be guaranteed a floor price for their electricity.
Julian Smith/AAP

Why is all this so important?

NSW’s ageing coal-fired power stations are chugging along – albeit with ever-declining reliability. But it’s only a matter of time before something expensive needs fixing. This was the case with Hazelwood in Victoria: the old walls of the boilers had thinned to less than 2 millimetres. The repair cost was prohibitive and the station closed with just five months’ notice. Electricity prices shot up in response to unexpectedly reduced supply.

In NSW, the consumer trustee will be tasked with helping ensuring replacement generation is delivered in a timely way. This means developing new generation capacity well ahead of announced coal plant closures.

This is a helpful development. But ultimately a stronger measure will be needed to ensure coal plants give early notice of their intention to exit the market. The Grattan Institute has previously suggested coal generators put up bonds that are forfeited if they close early. We think this model is worth considering again.

Seize the opportunity

As the world’s largest exporter of coal and LNG, Australia has much to lose as global economies shift to zero emissions. But our renewable energy potential means we also have much to gain.

Australia needs a durable, nationally consistent policy framework if we’re to seize the opportunities of the global transition to clean energy. The NSW roadmap is a significant step in the right direction.




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The Conversation


Tim Nelson, Associate Professor of Economics, Griffith University and Joel Gilmore, Associate Professor, Griffith University

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

Krakatoa is still active, and we are not ready for the tsunamis another eruption would generate



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Ravindra Jayaratne, University of East London

The August 1883 eruption of Krakatoa was one of the deadliest volcanic explosions in modern history. The volcano, found in the middle of the Sunda Strait in between two of Indonesia’s largest islands, was on a small island which disappeared almost overnight. The eruption was so loud it could be heard in Reunion, some 3,000 miles away.

As the volcano collapsed into the sea, it generated a tsunami 37m high – tall enough to submerge a six-storey building. And as the wave raced along the shoreline of the Sunda Strait, it destroyed 300 towns and villages, and killed more than 36,000 people.

Nearly 45 years later, in 1927, a series of sporadic underwater eruptions meant part of the original volcano once again emerged above the sea, forming a new island named Anak Krakatoa, which means “Child of Krakatoa”. In December 2018, during another small eruption, one of Anak Krakatoa’s flanks collapsed into the ocean and the region’s shorelines were once again hit by a major tsunami. This time, 437 were left dead, nearly 32,000 were injured and more than 16,000 people were displaced.

Map of Krakatoa.
Krakatoa is in the middle of a narrow strait between Java and Sumatra. Indonesia’s capital Jakarta is about 100 miles to the east.
ChrisO wiki / CIA World Factbook / Demis

Even though Anak Krakatoa had been active since June that year, local residents received no warning that a huge wave was about to hit. This is because Indonesia’s early warning system is based on ocean buoys that detect tsunamis induced by submarine earthquakes, such as those that struck on Boxing Day in 2004, in one of the most deadly natural disasters of all time.

But tsunamis caused by volcanic eruptions are rather different and, as they aren’t very common, scientists still don’t fully understand them. And Indonesia has no advanced early warning system in place for volcano-generated tsunamis.

At some point in the future, Anak Krakatoa will erupt again, generating more tsunamis. Since it is difficult to predict exactly which areas of the Sunda Strait will be affected, it is of paramount importance that residents in coastal villages are well aware of the danger.

Damaged buildings on a seafront, tropical forest background.
The tsunami badly damaged buildings on Legundi island, 20 miles from Krakatoa.
Ravindra Jayaratne, Author provided

An advanced early warning system could be installed. It would involve tide gauges to detect an increase in water levels, satellite imagery and drone mapping, and a tsunami numerical model run in real time. When this system triggered a warning, it would be fed direct to residents who live in the coastal belt. Until such a system is in place, it will be vital to get the local community involved in disaster risk management and education.

We need to tell people about the risks

But preparing for future disasters isn’t just about building breakwaters or seawalls, though these defensive structures are clearly vital for preserving beaches for tourism and local businesses like fishing. It is also about educating people so that they feel psychologically healthier, more resilient and less anxious about facing the mega tsunamis of the future.

I have previously highlighted two examples of proactive community participation in disaster-prone villages in the UK and Japan. In both cases, residents know how to act in case of a natural disaster without depending on the authorities. It is certain that the decimation of the land and deaths could be reduced if the local communities are well prepared for natural disasters like tsunamis.

Three men hold up a tsunami evacuation route sign.
Head to the hills.
Ravindra Jayaratne, Author provided

Following the December 2018 Anak Krakatoa tsunami, local researchers and I conducted a detailed field survey of the coastline of Lampung province, on the north side of the strait, and some of the smaller nearby islands. We found a lack of proper tsunami defence structures or any early warning system, and houses and businesses built very close to the coast with no buffer zone. We identified high ground where residents could run to in case of a tsunami and put up signs with evacuation routes.

During this survey, I conducted a series of focus group meetings with local residents and businesses in order to make the communities more resilient and reduce their anxiety about future mega tsunamis in the area. I developed a tsunami wave propagation model to replicate the 2018 tsunami and most plausible future tsunami events, and to identify the most vulnerable coastal stretches, such as the village of Kunjir on the Lampung mainland.

I also combined field survey results, numerical model outputs and published information to make some recommendations for local communities. I suggested active collaboration between government departments and local institutions on the issue, and the formation of disaster preparedness teams for every village in Southern Lampung. The planning criteria for development of infrastructure along the coasts should also be put under review, and there should be a trauma healing programme for the victims of the 2018 Krakatoa tsunami.

We don’t know exactly when Krakatoa will next erupt, or if any future eruptions will match those of 1883 or even 2018. That’s a question for volcanologists. But we should do what we can to prepare for the worst.The Conversation

Ravindra Jayaratne, Reader in Coastal Engineering, University of East London

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

China just stunned the world with its step-up on climate action – and the implications for Australia may be huge



Lukas Coch/AAP

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

China’s President Xi Jinping surprised the global community recently by committing his country to net-zero emissions by 2060. Prior to this announcement, the prospect of becoming “carbon neutral” barely rated a mention in China’s national policies.

China currently accounts for about 28% of global carbon emissions – double the US contribution and three times the European Union’s. Meeting the pledge will demand a deep transition of not just China’s energy system, but its entire economy.

Importantly, China’s use of coal, oil and gas must be slashed, and its industrial production stripped of emissions. This will affect demand for Australia’s exports in coming decades.

It remains to be seen whether China’s climate promise is genuine, or simply a ploy to win international favour. But it puts pressure on many other nations – not least Australia – to follow.

A man walking against an industrial skyline
It remains to be seen whether China will deliver on its climate pledge.
Da qing/AP

Goodbye, fossil fuels

Coal is currently used to generate about 60% of China’s electricity. Coal must be phased out for China to meet its climate target, unless technologies such as carbon-capture and storage become commercially viable.

Natural gas is increasingly used in China for heating and transport, as an alternative to coal and petrol. To achieve carbon neutrality, China must dramatically reduce its gas use.

Electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles must also come to dominate road transport – currently they account for less than 2% of the total fleet.




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China must also slash the production of carbon-intensive steel, cement and chemicals, unless they can be powered by renewable electricity or zero-emissions hydrogen. One report suggests meeting the target will mean most of China’s steel is produced using recycled steel, in a process powered by renewable electricity.

Modelling in that report suggests China’s use of iron ore – and the coking coal required to process it into steel – will decrease by 75%. The implications for Australia’s mining industry would be huge; around 80% of our iron ore is exported to China.

It is critically important for Australian industries and policymakers to assess the seriousness of China’s pledge and the likelihood it will be delivered. Investment plans for large mining projects should then be reconsidered accordingly.

Conversely, China’s path towards a carbon neutral economy may open up new export opportunities for Australia, such as “green” hydrogen.

A bust road in China
To meet its pledge, China must decarbonise its transport system.
DIEGO AZUBEL/EPA

A renewables revolution

Solar and wind currently account for 10% of China’s total power generation. For China to meet the net-zero goal, renewable energy generation would have to ramp up dramatically. This is needed for two reasons: to replace the lost coal-fired power capacity, and to provide the larger electricity needs of transport and heavy industry.

Two factors are likely to reduce energy demand in China in coming years. First, energy efficiency in the building, transport and manufacturing sectors is likely to improve. Second, the economy is moving away from energy- and pollution-intensive production, towards an economy based on services and digital technologies.

It’s in China’s interests to take greater action on climate change. Developing renewable energy helps China build new “green” export industries, secure its energy supplies and improve air and water quality.

A solar array in China
A transition to renewable energy would improve air pollution in China.
Sam McNeil/AP

The global picture

It’s worth considering what factors may have motivated China’s announcement, beyond the desire to do good for the climate.

In recent years, China has been viewed with increasing hostility on the world stage, especially by Western nations. Some commentators have suggested China’s climate pledge is a bid to improve its global image.

The pledge also gives China the high ground over a major antagonist, the US, which under President Donald Trump has walked away from its international obligations on climate action. China’s pledge follows similar ones by the European Union, New Zealand, California and others. It sets an example for other developing nations to follow, and puts pressure on Australia to do the same.




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The European Union has also been urging China to take stronger climate action. The fact Xi made the net-zero pledge at a United Nations meeting suggests it was largely targeted at an international, rather than Chinese, audience.

However, the international community will judge China’s pledge on how quickly it can implement specific, measurable short- and mid-term targets for net-zero emissions, and whether it has the policies in place to ensure the goal is delivered by 2060.

Much is resting on China’s next Five Year Plan – a policy blueprint created every five years to steer the economy towards various priorities. The latest plan, covering 2021–25, is being developed. It will be examined closely for measures such as phasing out coal and more ambitious targets for renewables.

Also key is whether the recent rebound of China’s carbon emissions – following a fall from 2013 to 2016 – can be reversed.

President Xi and President Trump
President Xi, left, has taken the high ground over the Trump-led US with its bold climate plan.
AP

Wriggle room

The 2060 commitment is bold, but China may look to leave itself wriggle room in several ways.

First, Xi declared in his speech that China will “aim to” achieve carbon neutrality, leaving open the option his nation may not meet the target.

Second, the Paris Agreement states that developed nations should provide financial resources and technological support to help developing countries reduce their emissions. China may make its delivery of the pledge conditional on this support.

Third, China may seek to game the way carbon neutrality is measured – for example, by insisting it excludes carbon emissions “embodied” in imports and exports. This move is quite likely, given exports account for a significant share of China’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

So for the time being, the world is holding its applause for China’s commitment to carbon neutrality. Like every nation, China will be judged not on its climate promises, but on its delivery.




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The Conversation


Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Fellow and 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.

A brutal war and rivers poisoned with every rainfall: how one mine destroyed an island



Locals living downstream of the abandoned mine pan for gold in mine waste.
Matthew Allen, Author provided

Matthew G. Allen, The University of the South Pacific

This week, 156 people from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea, petitioned the Australian government to investigate Rio Tinto over a copper mine that devastated their homeland.

In 1988, disputes around the notorious Panguna mine sparked a lengthy civil war in Bougainville, leading to the deaths of up to 20,000 people. The war is long over and the mine has been closed for 30 years, but its brutal legacy continues.




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When I conducted research in Bougainville in 2015, I estimated the deposit of the mine’s waste rock (tailings) downstream from the mine to be at least a kilometre wide at its greatest point. Local residents informed me it was tens of metres deep in places.

I spent several nights in a large two-story house built entirely from a single tree dragged out of the tailings — dragged upright, with a tractor. Every new rainfall brought more tailings downstream and changed the course of the waterways, making life especially challenging for the hundreds of people who eke out a precarious existence panning the tailings for remnants of gold.

The petition has brought the plight of these communities back into the media, but calls for Rio Tinto to clean up its mess have been made for decades. Let’s examine what led to the ongoing crisis.

Triggering a civil war

The Panguna mine was developed in the 1960s, when PNG was still an Australian colony, and operated between 1972 and 1989. It was, at the time, one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines.

It was operated by Bougainville Copper Limited, a subsidiary of what is now Rio Tinto, until 2016 when Rio handed its shares to the governments of Bougainville and PNG.

When a large-scale mining project reaches the end of its commercial life, a comprehensive mine closure and rehabilitation plan is usually put in place.




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But Bougainville Copper simply abandoned the site in the face of a landowner rebellion. This was largely triggered by the mine’s environmental and social impacts, including disputes over the sharing of its economic benefits and the impacts of those benefits on predominantly cashless societies.

Following PNG security forces’ heavy-handed intervention — allegedly under strong political pressure from Bougainville Copper — the rebellion quickly escalated into a full-blown separatist conflict that eventually engulfed all parts of the province.

By the time the hostilities ended in 1997, thousands of Bougainvilleans had lost their lives, including from an air and sea blockade the PNG military had imposed, which prevented essential medical supplies reaching the island.

The mine’s gigantic footprint

The Panguna mine’s footprint was gigantic, stretching across the full breadth of the central part of the island.

The disposal of hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings into the Kawerong-Jaba river system created enormous problems.

Rivers and streams became filled with silt and significantly widened. Water flows were blocked in many places, creating large areas of swampland and disrupting the livelihoods of hundreds of people in communities downstream of the mine. These communities used the rivers for drinking water and the adjacent lands for subsistence food gardening.

Several villages had to be relocated to make way for the mining operations, with around 200 households resettled between 1969 and 1989.

In the absence of any sort of mine closure or “mothballing” arrangements, the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the Panguna mine have only been compounded.

Since the end of mining activities 30 years ago, tailings have continued to move down the rivers and the waterways have never been treated for suspected chemical contamination.




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Long-suffering communities

The 156 complainants live in communities around and downstream of the mine. Many are from the long-suffering village of Dapera.

In 1975, the people of Dapera were relocated to make way for mining activities. Today, it’s in the immediate vicinity of the abandoned mine pit. As one woman from Dapera told me in 2015:

I have travelled all over Bougainville, and I can say that they [in Dapera] are the poorest of the poor.

They, and others, sent the complaint to the Australian OECD National Contact Point after lodging it with Melbourne’s Human Rights Law Centre.

The complainants say by not ensuring its operations didn’t infringe on the local people’s human rights, Rio Tinto breached OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises.

The Conversation contacted Rio Tinto for comment. A spokesperson said:

We believe the 2016 arrangement provided a platform for the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and PNG to work together on future options for the resource with all stakeholders.

While it is our belief that from 1990 to 2016 no Rio Tinto personnel had access to the mine site due to on-going security concerns, we are aware of the deterioration of mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas, and claims of resulting adverse environmental and social, including human rights, impacts.

We are ready to enter into discussions with the communities that have filed the complaint, along with other relevant parties such as BCL and the governments of ABG and PNG.

A long time coming

This week’s petition comes after a long succession of calls for Rio Tinto to be held to account for the Panguna mine’s legacies and the resulting conflict.

A recent example is when, after Rio Tinto divested from Bougainville Copper in 2016, former Bougainville President John Momis said Rio must take full responsibility for an environmental clean-up.

And in an unsuccessful class action, launched by Bougainvilleans in the United States in 2000, Rio was accused of collaborating with the PNG state to commit human rights abuses during the conflict and was also sued for environmental damages. The case ultimately foundered on jurisdictional grounds.

Two people, one waist-deep in tailings.
Hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings were deposited in the rivers.
Matthew Allen, Author provided

Taking social responsibility

This highlights the enormous challenges in seeking redress from mining companies for their operations in foreign jurisdictions, and, in this case, for “historical” impacts.

The colonial-era approach to mining when Panguna was developed in the 1960s stands in stark contrast to the corporate social responsibility paradigm supposedly governing the global mining industry today.




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Indeed, Panguna — along with the socially and environmentally disastrous Ok Tedi mine in the western highlands of PNG — are widely credited with forcing the industry to reassess its “social license to operate”.

It’s clear the time has come for Rio to finally take responsibility for cleaning up the mess on Bougainville.The Conversation

Matthew G. Allen, Professor of Development Studies, The University of the South Pacific

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

‘Majestic, stunning, intriguing and bizarre’: New Guinea has 13,634 species of plants, and these are some of our favourites



Bulbophyllum alkmaarense: New Guinea is home to more than 2,400 species of native orchids.
Andre Schuiteman/CSIRO

Bruce Webber, CSIRO; Barry J Conn, University of Sydney, and Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, University of Zürich

Scientists have been interested in the flora of New Guinea since the 17th century, but formal knowledge of the tropical island’s diversity has remained limited.

To solve this mystery, our global team of 99 scientists from 56 institutions built the first ever expert-verified checklist to the region’s vascular plants (those with conductive tissue).

We found there are 13,634 formally described species of plants in New Guinea, of which a remarkable 68% are known to occur there and nowhere else. This richness trumps both Madagascar (11,488 species) and Borneo (11,165 species), making New Guinea the most floristically diverse island in the world.

From tarantula-like orchids to giant bananas, here we reveal some of the more mysterious plants on our checklist. Sadly, unsustainable logging and climate change threaten the conservation of many New Guinean species, and we highlight urgent solutions.




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The majestic flora of New Guinea

New Guinea is a land of evocative contrasts. As the world’s largest tropical island – made up of Papua New Guinea to the east and two Indonesian provinces to the west – its biological diversity spans habitats from fringing mangroves to alpine grasslands.

The flora is diverse, filled with the majestic, stunning, intriguing and bizarre. However, very little is known about the conservation status of many species in New Guinea, which remains relatively unexplored by scientists.

The high hoop pine with thin branches and a full canopy
High hoop pines tower over forest canopy.
Wikimedia, CC BY

There are the few remaining forests of 60 metres high hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) and klinkii pine (A. hunsteinii), that tower majestically up to 30 metres above the already tall rainforest canopy.

Figs, with their copious sap, are present in diverse forms, from small shrubs to vines, or large canopy trees.

And the strongly irritant black sap of the Semecarpus tree, a distant relative of the American poison ivy, causing severe dermatitis, is something naive botanists must learn to avoid!

Three panels showing different parts of Ryparosa amplifolia
Ryparosa amplifolia maintains an intimate association with ants via hollow stems and food bodies.
Bruce Webber, Author provided

Then there’s the Ryparosa amplifolia, a rainforest tree that provides swollen hollow stems for ant colonies to live inside. The tree also produces energy rich “food bodies” – granule-like structures on the leaves that mimic animal tissue and provide the ants with sustenance. In return, the ants act as bodyguards, chasing away insect herbivores, and leaf cleaners.

A giant banana tree with an umbrella-like canopy and a thick trunk towers in a rainforest
The giant banana tree holds the record of being the largest and tallest non-woody plant in the world.
Rodrigo Camara, Author provided

Some of our most popular foods were domesticated from New Guinea, including sugarcane and bananas. But the giant banana, Musa ingens is a a highlight in montane forests. Its leaves can stretch to a length of 5 metres, the tree can grow more than 20 metres tall, and its fruits are massive.

With more than 2,400 species of native orchid species, New Guinea is one of the most spectacular floral gardens in the world. It includes fascinating species such as Bulbophyllum nocturnum, which is the first and only known example of a night-flowering orchid, and Bulbophyllum tarantula, with appendages that resemble the iconic spider.

A close-up of a green orchid with pink blotches and furry leg-like bits
Bulbophyllum tarantula gets its name from its tarantula-like appearance.
Jan Meijvogel, Author provided

An uncertain future

Despite New Guinea’s seemingly high number of plant species, at least 3,000 species remain to be discovered and formally described. This estimate is based on the rate of description of new species in the past decades.

Much of New Guinea, particularly the Indonesian part, has been extremely poorly studied, with very few plant species collected. Even within Papua New Guinea, the distribution of many species is inadequately known. This means our findings should be viewed as a baseline upon which to prioritise further work.

The biggest impact on forest conservation is from logging, both clear-felling and degradation. As land is predominantly under customary ownership, addressing subsistence-related forest loss is a long-term challenge. Climate change adds yet further threats, including increased burning of degraded forest due to drier weather.

This means there’s a high risk of the world losing entire species before they are even known.

Looking down on the jungles of Papua New Guinea
Unsustainable logging and climate change are the biggest threats to the flora of New Guinea.
Shutterstock

To this end, in 2018 the governors of Indonesia’s two New Guinea provinces announced the Manokwari Declaration, a pledge to conserve 70% of forest cover for the western half of the island.

Reversing funding shortfalls and declining engagement

Our work builds on many decades of effort by plant collectors whose countless nights under leaking canvas, grass huts and bark shelters have led to thousands of plant discoveries.

Their stories are astounding. These fearless adventurers have sampled water plants by jumping from helicopters hovering low over Lake Tebera, swam in the Purari River rapids to haul a disabled dugout canoe full of botanists and cargo to safety, and have fallen into beds of stinging plants in the mountains of Wagau without subsequent access to pain relief.

Taxonomy – the discipline of identifying, classifying, and understanding relationships between plants – is the key to unlocking the value of this collecting effort.


A yellow flower with small brown spots and three appendages
Bulbophyllum nocturnum: the first known example of an orchid species in which flowers open after dark and close in the morning.
Jan Meijvogel, Author provided

But the discipline is suffering from global funding shortfalls and declining engagement. For instance, 40% of our co-authors on this work are 55 years or older.

Future opportunities for botanical research with local New Guineans at the helm is also vital – only 15% of the scientific publications on the New Guinean flora over the past 10 years involved local co-authors.

Improved collaboration between taxonomists, scientific institutions, governments and New Guinean scientific agencies could address these critical urgent priorities.

Undoubtedly, the conservation of New Guinea’s unique flora will be challenging and require work on many fronts that transcend single disciplines or institutions. From what we know already, a world of botanical surprises awaits in the last unknown.

After all, as 19th century naturalist J.B. Jukes wrote:

I know of no part of the world, the exploration of which is so flattering to the imagination, so likely to be fruitful in interesting results […] and altogether so well calculated to gratify the enlightened curiosity of an adventurous explorer, as the interior of New Guinea.




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The Conversation


Bruce Webber, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Barry J Conn, Researcher, University of Sydney, and Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, Researcher, University of Zürich

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

Endangered tigers face growing threats from an Asian road-building boom



Female tiger crossing track, Bandavgarh National Park, India.
David Tipling/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Neil Carter, University of Michigan

Tigers are one of the world’s most iconic wild species, but today they are endangered throughout Asia. They once roamed across much of this region, but widespread habitat loss, prey depletion and poaching have reduced their numbers to only about 4,000 individuals. They live in small pockets of habitat across South and Southeast Asia, as well as the Russian Far East – an area spanning 13 countries and 450,000 square miles (1,160,000 square kilometers).

Today Asia is experiencing a road-building boom. To maintain economic growth, development experts estimate that the region will need to invest about US$8.4 trillion in transportation infrastructure between 2016 and 2030.

Major investment projects, such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative – one of the largest infrastructure projects of all time – are fueling this growth. While roads can reduce poverty, especially in rural areas, many of Asia’s new roads also are likely to traverse regions that are home to diverse plants and animals.

To protect tigers from this surge of road building, conservation scientists like me need to know where the greatest risks are. That information, in turn, can improve road planning in the future.

In a newly published study, I worked with researchers at the University of Michigan, Boise State University and the University of British Columbia to examine how existing and planned Asian roads encroach on tiger habitats. We forecast that nearly 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers) of new roads will be built in tiger habitats by 2050, and call for bold new planning strategies that prioritize biodiversity conservation and sustainable road development across large landscapes.

Economic growth in Asia means more roads will be built into tiger habitat. Planning at the outset can make these projects more tiger-friendly.

Letting humans in

Road construction worsens existing threats to tigers, such as poaching and development, by paving the way for human intrusion into the heart of the tiger’s range. For example, in the Russian Far East, roads have led to higher tiger mortality due to increased collisions with vehicles and more encounters with poachers.

To assess this threat across Asia, we focused on areas called Tiger Conservation Landscapes – 76 zones, scattered across the tiger’s range, which conservationists see as crucial for the species’ recovery. For each zone we calculated road density, distance to the nearest road and relative mean species abundance, which estimates the numbers of mammals in areas near roads compared to areas far from roads. Mean species abundance is our best proxy for estimating how roads affect numbers of mammals, like tigers and their prey, across broad scales.

We also used future projections of road building in each country to forecast the length of new roads that might be built in tiger habitats by 2050.

Overpasses and underpasses, like this one in Florida, help wild animals traverse highways safely.

More roads, fewer animals

We estimated that more than 83,300 miles (134,000 kilometers) of roads already exist within tiger habitats. This is likely an underestimate, since many logging or local roads are missing from the global data set that we used.

Road densities in tiger habitat are one-third greater outside of protected areas, such as national parks and tiger reserves, than inside of protected areas. Non-protected areas averaged 1,300 feet of road per square mile (154 meters per square kilometer), while protected areas averaged 980 feet per square mile (115 meters per square kilometer). For tiger populations to grow, they will need to use the forests outside protected areas. However, the high density of roads in those forests will jeopardize tiger recovery.

Protected areas and priority conservation sites – areas with large populations of tigers – are not immune either. For example, in India – home to over 70% of the world’s tigers – we estimate that a protected area of 500 square miles, or 1,300 square kilometers, contains about 200 miles (320 kilometers) of road.

Road networks are expansive. Over 40% of areas where tiger breeding has recently been detected – crucial to tiger population growth – is within just 3 miles (5 kilometers) of a nearby road. This is problematic because mammals often are less abundant this close to roads.

In fact, we estimate that current road networks within tiger habitats may be reducing local populations of tigers and their prey by about 20%. That’s a major decrease for a species on the brink of extinction. And the threats from roads are likely to become more severe.

Estimated road densities for 76 tiger conservation landscapes (colored zones), with darker red indicating more roads per unit area.
Neil Carter, CC BY-ND

Making infrastructure tiger-friendly

Our findings underscore the need for planning development in ways that interfere as minimally as possible with tiger habitat. Multilateral development banks and massive ventures like the Belt and Road Initiative can be important partners in this endeavor. For example, they could help establish an international network of protected areas and habitat corridors to safeguard tigers and many other wild species from road impacts.

National laws can also do more to promote tiger-friendly infrastructure planning. This includes keeping road development away from priority tiger populations and other “no go” zones, such as tiger reserves or habitat corridors.

Zoning can be used around infrastructure to prevent settlement growth and forest loss. Environmental impact assessments for road projects can do a better job of assessing how new roads might exacerbate hunting and poaching pressure on tigers and their prey.

Funding agencies need to screen proposed road developments using these tiger-friendly criteria before planners finalize decisions on road design, siting and construction. Otherwise, it might be too late to influence road planning.

There are also opportunities to reduce the negative effects of existing roads on tigers. They include closing roads to vehicular traffic at night, decommissioning existing roads in areas with important tiger populations, adding road signs announcing the presence of tigers and constructing wildlife crossings to allow tigers and other wildlife to move freely through the landscape.

Roads will become more pervasive features in Asian ecosystems as these nations develop. In my view, now is the time to tackle this mounting challenge to Asian biodiversity, including tigers, through research, national and international collaborations and strong political leadership.

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Neil Carter, Assistant Professor of Wildlife Conservation, University of Michigan

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

Be still, my beating wings: hunters kill migrating birds on their 10,000km journey to Australia


A bar-tailed godwit.
Lucas DeCicco, US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eduardo Gallo-Cajiao, The University of Queensland

It is low tide at the end of the wet season in Broome, Western Australia. Shorebirds feeding voraciously on worms and clams suddenly get restless.

Chattering loudly they take flight, circling up over Roebuck Bay then heading off for their northern breeding grounds more than 10,000 km away. I marvel at the epic journey ahead, and wonder how these birds will fare.

In my former role as an assistant warden at the Broome Bird Observatory, I had the privilege of watching shorebirds, such as the bar-tailed godwit, set off on their annual migration.

I’m now a conservation researcher at the University of Queensland, focusing on birds. Populations of migratory shorebirds are in sharp decline, and some are threatened with extinction.

We know the destruction of coastal habitats for infrastructure development has taken a big toll on these amazing birds. But a study I conducted with a large international team, which has just been published, suggests hunting is also a likely key threat.

Bar-tailed Godwits and great knots on migration in the Yellow Sea, China.
photo credit: Yong Ding Li

What are migratory shorebirds?

Worldwide, there are 139 migratory shorebird species. About 75 species breed at high latitudes across Asia, Europe, and North America then migrate south in a yearly cycle.

Some 61 migratory shorebird species occur in the Asia-Pacific, within the so-called East Asian-Australasian Flyway. This corridor includes 22 countries – from breeding grounds as far north as Alaska and Siberia to non-breeding grounds as far south as Tasmania and New Zealand. In between are counties in Asia’s east and southeast, such as South Korea and Vietnam.

Map of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (bounded by blue line) showing schematic migratory movements of shorebirds.
figure credit: Jen Dixon

The bar-tailed godwits I used to observe at Roebuck Bay breed in Russia’s Arctic circle. They’re among about 36 migratory shorebird species to visit Australia each year, amounting to more than two million birds.

They primarily arrive towards the end of the year in all states and territories – visiting coastal areas such as Moreton Bay in Queensland, Eighty Mile Beach in Western Australia, and Corner Inlet in Victoria.

Numbers of migratory shorebirds have been falling for many species in the flyway. The trends have been detected since the 1970s using citizen science data sets.




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Five of the 61 migratory shorebird species in this flyway are globally threatened. Two travel to Australia: the great knot and far eastern curlew.

Threats to these birds are many. They include the loss of their critical habitats along their migration path, off-leash dogs disturbing them on Australian beaches, and climate change likely contracting their breeding grounds.

And what about hunting?

During their migration, shorebirds stop to rest and feed along a network of wetlands and mudflats. They appear predictably and in large numbers at certain sites, making them relatively easy targets for hunters.

Estimating the extent to which birds are hunted over large areas was like completing a giant jigsaw puzzle. We spent many months scouring the literature, obtaining data and reports from colleagues then carefully assembling the pieces.

We discovered that since the 1970s, three-quarters of all migratory shorebird species in the flyway have been hunted at some point. This includes almost all those visiting Australia and four of the five globally threatened species.

Some records relate to historical hunting that has since been banned. For example the Latham’s snipe, a shorebird that breeds in Japan, was legally hunted in Australia until the 1980s. All migratory shorebirds are now legally protected from hunting in Australia.




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We found evidence that hunting of migratory shorebirds has occurred in 14 countries, including New Zealand and Japan, with most recent records concentrated in southeast Asia, such as Indonesia, and the northern breeding grounds, such as the US.

For a further eight, such as Mongolia and South Korea, we could not determine whether hunting has ever occurred.

Our research suggests hunting has likely exceeded sustainable limits in some instances. Hunting has also been pervasive – spanning vast areas over many years and involving many species.

Shorebirds being sold as food in southeast Asia, 2019.
Toby Trung and Nguyen Hoai Bao/BirdLife

Looking ahead

The motivations of hunters vary across the flyway, according to needs, norms, and cultural traditions. For instance, Native Americans in Alaska hunt shorebirds as a food source after winter, and low-income people in Southeast Asia hunt and sell them.

National governments, supported by NGOs and researchers, must find the right balance between conservation and other needs, such as food security.

Efforts to address hunting are already underway. This includes mechanisms such as the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership. Other efforts involve helping hunters find alternative livelihoods.

Our understanding of hunting as a potential threat is hindered by a lack of coordinated monitoring across the Asia-Pacific.

Additional surveys by BirdLife International, as well as university researchers, is underway in southeast Asia, China, and Russia. Improving hunting assessments, and coordination between them, is essential. Without it, we are acting in the dark.

The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of Professor Richard A. Fuller (University of Queensland), Professor Tiffany H. Morrison (James Cook University), Dr Bradley Woodworth (University of Queensland), Dr Taej Mundkur (Wetlands International), Dr Ding Li Yong (BirdLife International-Asia), and Professor James E.M. Watson (University of Queensland).The Conversation

Eduardo Gallo-Cajiao, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland

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