Why stop at plastic bags and straws? The case for a global treaty banning most single-use plastics



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Joyce Njeri, 8, walks amidst garbage and plastic bags in the Dandora slum of Nairobi, Kenya.
AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File

Anastasia Telesetsky, University of Idaho

Single-use plastics are a blessing and a curse. They have fueled a revolution in commercial and consumer convenience and improved hygiene standards, but also have saturated the world’s coastlines and clogged landfills. By one estimate 79 percent of all plastic ever produced is now in a dump, a landfill or the environment, and only 9 percent has been recycled.

This growing legacy poses real risks. Plastic packaging is clogging city sewer systems, leading to flooding. Abandoned plastic goods create breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and can leach toxic additives such as styrene and benzene as they decompose. Single-use plastics are killing birds and harming marine life.

I study international environmental law with a focus on marine ecosystems. In my view, land-based pollution from single-use plastics is a slow-onset disaster that demands a global response.

One attractive strategy is pursuing a legally binding phase-out of most single-use plastics at the global level. I believe this approach makes sense because it would build on current national and municipal efforts to eliminate single-use packaging, and would create opportunities for new small and medium-sized businesses to develop more benign substitutes.

Plastic bag litter along the Jukskei River, Johannesburg, South Africa.
NJR ZA/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Single-use plastic bans

About 112 countries, states and cities around the world have already imposed bans on various single-use plastic goods. Of these measures, 57 are national and 25 are in Africa. And the list of these restrictions continues to grow.

Most of these bans target thin single-use plastic carrier bags or imports of non-biodegradable bags. Some, such as the one in Antigua-Barbuda, include other single-use or problematic items, such as foam coolers and plastic utensils. A few measures – notably, Kenya’s plastic bag law – impose stiff punishments on violators, including jail time and fines of up to US$38,000.

Groups of states are starting to enact regional policies. The East African Legislative Assembly has passed a bill to ban the manufacture, sale, import and use of certain plastic bags across its six member states, with a combined population of approximately 186 million people. And in October 2018 the European Union Parliament approved a ban on a number of single-use plastic items by 2021, along with a requirement to reduce plastic in food packaging by 25 percent by 2025 and cut plastic content in cigarette filters 80 percent by 2030.

Most of these bans are quite new or still being implemented, so there is limited research on how well they work. However, researchers at the United Nations who have reviewed 60 “national bans and levies” estimate that 30 percent of these measures have reduced consumption of plastics.

Plastics manufacturers contend that better recycling is the most effective way to reduce the environmental impact of their products. But many factors make it hard to recycle plastic, from its physical characteristics to insufficient market demand for many types of recycled plastics. In many instances, single-use plastics can only be recycled, optimistically, 10 times before their fibers become too short to be reprocessed.

Estimated number of new regulations on single-use plastics entering into force at the national level worldwide.
UNEP, CC BY

Lessons from other global bans

Several global bans and product phase-outs offer lessons for a treaty banning single-use plastic goods. The most successful case is the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This treaty phased out production and use of chlorofluorocarbons in a variety of products, including refrigerators and spray cans, after they were shown to harm Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Today scientists predict that stratospheric ozone concentrations will rebound to 1980 levels by the middle of this century. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Montreal Protocol has prevented millions of cases of skin cancer and cataracts from exposure to ultraviolet radiation. In 2016 nations adopted the Kigali Amendment, which will phase out production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, another class of ozone-depleting chemicals.

Why has the Montreal Protocol worked so well? One key factor is that every nation in the world has joined it. They did so because alternative materials were available to substitute for chlorofluorocarbons. The treaty also provided financial support to countries that needed help transitioning away from the banned substances.

Sir David Attenborough narrates the extraordinary history of the Montreal Protocol.

Where countries trying to reduce use of these chemicals fell short of their goals, the Protocol provided institutional support rather than punishing them. But it also included the option to impose trade sanctions on nations that refused to cooperate.

Another pact, the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, banned or severely limited production and use of certain chemicals that threatened human and environmental health, including specific insecticides and industrial chemicals. Today 182 nations have signed the treaty. Concentrations of several dangerous POPs in the Arctic, where global air and water currents tend to concentrate them, have declined.

Nations have added new chemicals to the list and created “elimination networks” to help members phase out use of dangerous materials such as PCBs. And producers of goods such as semiconductors and carpets that use listed chemicals are working to develop new, safer processes.

Even though the United States has not signed the Stockholm Convention, U.S. companies have largely eliminated production of the chemicals that the treaty regulates. This shows that setting a global standard may encourage nations to conform in order to maintain access to global markets.

Other international bans have been less successful. In 1989, seeking to reduce the slaughter of elephants for their tusks, parties to the Convention in Trade of Endangered Species banned ivory sales by ending trade in African elephant parts. Initially demand for ivory fell, but in 1999 and 2008 treaty states allowed African nations to sell ivory stockpiles to Japan and China, ostensibly to fund conservation. These two sales reignited global demand for ivory and created unregulated domestic markets that stimulated high levels of poaching.

Malaysian customs officials display smuggled tusks seized at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. Demand for ivory continues to fuel poaching and illegal trade despite an international ban on sales of elephant parts.
AP Photo/Vincent Thian

An opportunity to lead

What lessons do these treaties offer for curbing plastic pollution? The Montreal Protocol shows that bans can work where substitute products are available, but require reliable monitoring and the threat of sanctions to deter cheating. The Stockholm Convention suggests that industries will innovate to meet global production challenges. And struggles to curb the ivory trade offer a cautionary message about allowing exceptions to global bans.

I believe the rapid spread of single-use plastic bans shows that enough political support exists to launch negotiations toward a global treaty. Emerging economies such as Kenya that are aggressively tackling the problem are especially well placed to take a lead at the U.N. General Assembly in calling for talks on stemming the tide of plastic pollution.The Conversation

Anastasia Telesetsky, Professor of International Environmental Law , University of Idaho

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

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We finally have the rulebook for the Paris Agreement, but global climate action is still inadequate


Kate Dooley, University of Melbourne

Three years after the Paris Agreement was struck, we now finally know the rules – or most of them, at least – for its implementation.

The Paris Rulebook, agreed at the UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland, gives countries a common framework for reporting and reviewing progress towards their climate targets.

Yet the new rules fall short in one crucial area. While the world will now be able to see how much we are lagging behind on the necessary climate action, the rulebook offers little to compel countries to up their game to the level required.




Read more:
COP24 shows global warming treaties can survive the era of the anti-climate ‘strongman’


The national pledges adopted in Paris are still woefully inadequate to meet the 1.5℃ or 2℃ global warming goals of the Paris Agreement. In the run-up to the Katowice talks, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report detailing the urgent need to accelerate climate policy. Yet the summit ran into trouble in its efforts to formally welcome the report, with delegates eventually agreeing to welcome its “timely completion”.

Rather than directly asking for national climate targets to be increased, the Katowice text simply reiterates the existing request in the Paris Agreement for countries to communicate and update their contributions by 2020.

Much now hinges on the UN General Assembly summit in September 2019, to bring the much-needed political momentum towards a new raft of pledges in 2020 that are actually in line with the scientific reality.

Ratcheting up ambition

A key element of the Paris Agreement is the Global Stocktake – a five-yearly assessment of whether countries are collectively on track to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals to limit global warming.

The new rulebook affirms that this process will consider “equity and best available science”. But it does not elaborate specifically on how these inputs will be used, and how the outcomes of the stocktake will increase ambition.

This raises concerns that the rulebook will ensure we know if we are falling behind on climate action, but will offer no prescription for fixing things. This risks failing to address one of the biggest issues with the Paris Agreement so far: that countries are under no obligation to ensure their climate pledges are in line with the overall goals. A successful, ambitious and prescriptive five-yearly review process will be essential to get the world on track.

Transparency and accounting

One of the aims of the Katowice talks was to develop a common set of formats and schedules for countries to report their climate policy progress.

The new rules allow a degree of flexibility for the most vulnerable countries, who are not compelled to submit quantified climate pledges or regular transparency reports. All other countries will be bound to report on their climate action every two years, starting in 2024.

However, given the “bottom-up” nature of the Paris Agreement, countries are largely able to determine their own accounting rules, with guidelines agreed on what information they should provide. But a future international carbon trading market will obviously require a standardised set of rules. The newly agreed rulebook carries a substantial risk of double-counting where countries could potentially count overseas emissions reductions towards their own target, even if another country has also claimed this reduction for itself.

This issue became a major stumbling block in the negotiations, with Brazil and others refusing to agree to rules that would close this loophole, and so discussions will continue next year. In the meantime, the UN has no official agreement on how to implement international carbon trading.

Accounting rules for action in the land sector have also been difficult to agree. Countries such as Brazil and some African nations sought to avoid an agreement on this issue, while others, such as Australia, New Zealand and the European Union, prefer to continue existing rules that have delivered windfall credits to these countries.

Finance

The new rulebook defines what will constitute “climate finance”, and how it will be reported and reviewed.

Developed countries are now obliged to report every two years on what climate finance they plan to provide, while other countries in a position to provide climate finance are encouraged to follow the same schedule.

But with a plethora of eligible financial instruments – concessional and non-concessional loans, guarantees, equity, and investments from public and private sources – the situation is very complex. In some cases, vulnerable countries could be left worse off, such as if loans have to be repaid with interest, or if financial risk instruments fail.

Countries can voluntarily choose to report the grant equivalent value of these financial instruments. Such reporting will be crucial for understanding the scale of climate finance mobilised.




Read more:
We can’t know the future cost of climate change. Let’s focus on the cost of avoiding it instead


The Paris Agreement delivered the blueprint for a global response to climate change. Now, the Paris Rulebook lays out a structure for reporting and understanding the climate action of all countries.

But the world is far from on track to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. The latest report from the UN Environment Programme suggests existing climate targets would need to be increased “around fivefold” for a chance of limiting warming to 1.5℃. The newly agreed rules don’t offer a way to put us on this trajectory.

Multilateral climate policy has perhaps taken us as far as it can – it is now time for action at the national level. Australia, as a country with very high per-capita emissions, needs to step up to a leadership position and take on our fair share of the global response. This means making a 60% emissions cut by 2030, as outlined by the Climate Change Authority in 2015.

Such an ambitious pledge from Australia and other leading nations would galvanise the international climate talks in 2020. What the world urgently needs is a race to the top, rather than the current jockeying for position.The Conversation

Kate Dooley, Researcher, Australian German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

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

NZ is home to species found nowhere else but biodiversity losses match global crisis



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There are five species of kiwi in New Zealand. Their total number is currently at around 70,000 but the populations may have declined by two thirds in 20 years.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Robert McLachlan, Massey University and Steven Alexander Trewick, Massey University

The recently released 2018 Living Planet report is among the most comprehensive global analyses of biodiversity yet. It is based on published data on 4,000 out of the 70,000 known species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians.

Rather than listing species that have gone extinct, the report summarises more subtle information about the vulnerability of global biodiversity. The bottom line is that across the globe, the population sizes of the species considered have declined by an average of 60% in 40 years.

New Zealand is a relatively large and geographically isolated archipelago with a biota that includes many species found nowhere else in the world. One might think that it is buffered from some of the effects of biological erosion, especially since people only arrived less than 800 years ago. But as we show, the impact on wildlife has been catastrophic.




Read more:
Tipping point: huge wildlife loss threatens the life support of our small planet


Describing biological diversity

The diversity of life may seem incomprehensible. Carolus Linnaeus began his systematic work to describe earth’s biological diversity in the 18th century with about 12,000 plants and animals. Since then, 1.3 million species of multi-cellular creatures have been described, but the size of the remaining taxonomic gap remains unclear.

Recently, sophisticated models estimated the scale of life, suggesting that multi-cellular life ranges between about five million and nine million species. Microbial life might include millions, billions or even trillions of species.

Species do not exist in isolation. They are part of communities of large and microscopic organisms that themselves drive diversification. Charles Darwin observed in his usual understated way:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Global decline of wild places

The main threat to biodiversity remains overexploitation of resources, leading to loss of habitat. Human overconsumption can only get worse in coming decades, and this will likely escalate the impact of invasive species, increase the rate of disease transmission, worsen water and air pollution and add to climate change.




Read more:
Capitalism is killing the world’s wildlife populations, not ‘humanity’


This is the Anthropocene, the era of human domination of many global-scale processes. By the early 1990s, just 33 million of the earth’s 130 million square kilometres of ice-free land remained in wilderness. By 2016, it was down to 30 million. Most of this is either desert, taiga or tundra. In other words, humans and their cities, roads and farms occupy 77% of the available land on earth.

By 2050, wild lands are projected to contract to 13 million square kilometres, leaving ever less space for wild animals and plants. In terms of resources consumed, there is huge inequity. Preliminary estimates of the biomass of all life on earth reveal that humans, their pets and their farm animals outweigh wild land mammals by 50 to one. Poultry outweigh all wild birds 2.5 to one.

New Zealand: at the bottom of the cliff

In New Zealand, a lot of attention is paid to iconic, rare species, such as kiwi and kākāpo. However, in 2017, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment reported that the proportion of forest land occupied by birds found only in New Zealand had declined in the North Island from 16% to 5% between 1974 and 2002. In the South Island, it declined from 23% to 16%.

These figures are consistent with other studies on animal populations. For example, kiwi, which currently number 70,000, may have declined by two thirds in 20 years. Thus there is a risk that continued biodiversity decline overall will see more and more species requiring last-ditch efforts to save them, with healthy populations confined to heavily protected and often fenced sanctuaries.

New Zealand is unusual in that introduced, invasive predators are a major threat and are widely seen as the predominant threat to native animals. However, land use change in New Zealand has been rapid, extensive and catastrophic for biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. The New Zealand situation is at best the global story writ small.

As the last substantial land area to be settled by humans, the land experienced an alarming rate of habitat loss. Indeed, deforestation was considered a necessity and the “homestead system” in Auckland saw tenants turned off the land if they failed to clear sufficient native bush.

Native bush in New Zealand has been reduced by about three quarters from its former 82% extent across the landscape. What remains is heavily modified and not representative of former diversity. For example, in the Manawatū-Whanganui region, ancient lowland kahikatea forest has been reduced to less than 5% of its former extent, and between 1996 and 2012, 89,000 hectares of indigenous forest and scrub was converted to exotic forest and exotic pasture. When a habitat is removed, the organisms that live in it go, too.

The way forward

The Living Planet report charts a detailed, aspirational roadmap to reverse the decline in biodiversity. It takes heart from the 2015 Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals. It looks ahead to a greatly strengthened Convention on Biological Diversity for 2020.

Unfortunately, biodiversity threats are, if anything, even more pervasive and difficult to address than fossil fuel emissions. In climate change, it is broadly agreed that rising seas, acidifying oceans and destabilised weather patterns are bad. There is no such universal understanding of the importance of biodiversity.

To address this, the report details the importance of biodiversity to human health, food production and economic activity – the “ecosystem services” that nature provides to humans. The intrinsic value of nature to itself is hardly mentioned. This is not a new debate. The 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity is founded on “the intrinsic value of biological diversity”, while the Rio Earth Summit of the same year stated that “human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development.”

The issue should not be confined to ecologists, philosophers, and diplomats. It needs to be addressed or we may find that future generations value nature even less than present ones do. In 2002, Randy Olsen popularised the concept of the shifting baseline, which means that people progressively adjust to a new normal and don’t realise what has been lost:

People go diving today in California kelp beds that are devoid of the large black sea bass, broomtailed groupers and sheephead that used to fill them. And they surface with big smiles on their faces because it is still a visually stunning experience to dive in a kelp bed. But all the veterans can think is, “You should have seen it in the old days”.The Conversation

Robert McLachlan, Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University and Steven Alexander Trewick, Professor of Evolutionary Ecology, Massey University

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

Climate change will reshape the world’s agricultural trade



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Australia’s grain exports will suffer under climate change.
Alpha/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Luciana Porfirio, CSIRO; David Newth, CSIRO, and John Finnigan, CSIRO

Ending world hunger is a central aspiration of modern society. To address this challenge – along with expanding agricultural land and intensifying crop yields – we rely on global agricultural trade to meet the nutritional demands of a growing world population.




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How many people can Australia feed?


But standing in the way of this aspiration is human-induced climate change. It will continue to affect the issue of where in the world crops can be grown and, therefore, food supply and global markets.

In a paper published today in Nature Palgrave, we show that climate change will affect global markets by reshaping agricultural trading patterns.

Some regions may not be able to battle climate impacts on agriculture, in which case production of key commodities will decline or shift to new regions.

The challenge

The negative impacts of climate change on agricultural production are of great concern to farmers and decision-makers. The concern is increasingly shared by governments including those most hostile to the advancement of climate change mitigation.

Even the United States, which has opted out of the Paris Agreement, acknowledged at last year’s G7 summit that climate change was one of a number of threats to “our capacity to feed a growing population and need[ed] to be taken into serious consideration”.

The UN median population projection suggests that the world population will reach some 10 billion in 2050. Between 2000 and 2010, roughly 66% of the daily energy intake per person, about 7,322 kilojoules, was derived from four key commodities: wheat, rice, coarse grains and oilseeds. However, the most recent UN report on food security and nutrition shows that world hunger is on the rise again and scientists believe this is due to climate change.




Read more:
World hunger is increasing thanks to wars and climate change


We must ask: what is the cost of adapting to climate change versus the cost of mitigating carbon emissions? And assuming that changes in climate and crop yields are here to stay, are we prepared for permanent agricultural shifts?

Disruptions and opportunities

Agricultural production is significantly affected by climate change. Our results suggest that global trade patterns of agricultural commodities may be significantly different from today’s reality – with or without carbon mitigation. This is because climate change and the implementation of a carbon mitigation policy have different effects on a regions’ agricultural production and economy.

Take the US, which in 2015 had 30% of the global market share of coarse grains, paddy rice, soybeans and wheat. We modelled production between 2050-59 under two scenarios: in a world 2℃ average temperature rise, and with a 1.5℃ increase. In both cases, the US market share would shrink to about 10%.




Read more:
As global food demand rises, climate change is hitting our staple crops


China is currently a net importer of these commodities. If temperature increases by 1.5℃, we expect to see an increase in exports of some products, like rice to the rest of Asia.

(However, it’s worth bearing in mind that limiting warming would be very expensive for China, as it would need to absorb a costly technological transition to a low carbon economy.)

China’s story is different in the 2℃ scenario. Our projections suggest that climate change will make China, as well as other regions in Asia, more suitable to produce different commodities.

China’s economy will keep expanding, whilst the new climatic conditions create opportunities to produce other food commodities at a greater scale and export to new regions.

Our results also suggest that, regardless of the carbon policy scenarios, Sub-Saharan Africa will become the greatest importer of coarse grains, rice, soybeans and wheat by 2050. This significant change in Sub-Saharan Africa imports is driven by the fact that the largest increase in human population by 2050 will occur in this region, with a significant increase in food demand.

In our research Australia was aggregated in “Oceania” with New Zealand. The exports from Oceania to the rest of the world comprised about 1.6% of the total in 2015, which is dominated by wheat exports from Australia.

Our projections suggest that carbon mitigation policies would favour the wheat industry in this region. The opposite occurs without carbon mitigation: the production and exports of wheat are projected to decline due to climate change impacts on agriculture.

The benefits of mitigation

A recent report published by the European Commission about the challenges of global agriculture in a climate change context by 2050 highlights that

…emission mitigation measures (i.e. carbon pricing) have a negative impact on primary agricultural production […] across all models.

However, the report does not mention the technological costs to buffer (or adapt to) the effect of climate change on agriculture.

Our results suggest that the cost paid by the agricultural sector to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is offset by the higher food prices projected in the non-mitigation scenario, where agricultural production is significantly affected by climate change. We found that there is a net economic benefit in transitioning to a low carbon economy. This is because agricultural systems are more productive under the mitigation scenario, and able to meet the demand for food imposed by a growing population.




Read more:
Australian farmers are adapting to climate change


Mitigating CO₂ emissions has the side benefit of creating a more stable agricultural trade system that may be better able to reduce food insecurity and increase welfare.

Changes in the agricultural system due to climate are inevitable. It is time to create a sense of urgency about our agricultural vulnerabilities to climate change, and begin seriously minimising risk.The Conversation

Luciana Porfirio, Research Scientist, Agriculture & Food, CSIRO | Visiting fellow at the Fenner School of Enviroment & Society, CSIRO; David Newth, Team Leader, Australian And Global Carbon Assessments, CSIRO, and John Finnigan, Leader, Complex Systems Science, CSIRO

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

Why we shouldn’t be too quick to blame migratory animals for global disease


Alice Risely, Deakin University; Bethany J Hoye, University of Wollongong, and Marcel Klaassen, Deakin University

Have you ever got on a flight and the person next to you started sneezing? With 37 million scheduled flights transporting people around the world each year, you might think that the viruses and other germs carried by travellers would be getting a free ride to new pastures, infecting people as they go.

Yet pathogenic microbes are surprisingly bad at expanding their range by hitching rides on planes. Microbes find it difficult to thrive when taken out of their ecological comfort zone; Bali might just be a tad too hot for a Tasmanian parasite to handle.

But humans aren’t the only species to go global with their parasites. Billions of animals have been flying, swimming and running around the globe every year on their seasonal migrations, long before the age of the aeroplane. The question is, are they picking up new pathogens on their journeys? And if they are, are they transporting them across the world?


Read more: A tale of three mosquitoes: how a warming world could spread disease


Migratory animals are the usual suspects for disease spread

With the rate of zoonotic diseases (pathogens that jump from animals to humans) on the rise, migratory animals have been under increasing suspicion of aiding the spread of devastating diseases such as bird flu, Lyme disease, and even Ebola.

These suspicions are bad for migrating animals, because they are often killed in large numbers when considered a disease threat. They are also bad for humans, because blaming animals may obscure other important factors in disease spread, such as animal trade. So what’s going on?

Despite the logical link between animal migration and the spread of their pathogens, there is in fact surprisingly little direct evidence that migrants frequently spread pathogens long distances.

This is because migratory animals are notoriously hard for scientists to track. Their movements make them difficult to test for infections over the vast areas that they occupy.

But other theories exist that explain the lack of direct evidence for migrants spreading pathogens. One is that, unlike humans who just have to jump on a plane, migratory animals must work exceptionally hard to travel. Flying from Australia to Siberia is no easy feat for a tiny migratory bird, nor is swimming between the poles for giant whales. Human athletes are less likely to finish a race if battling infections, and likewise, migrant animals may have to be at the peak of health if they are to survive such gruelling journeys. Sick travellers may succumb to infection before they, or their parasitic hitchhikers, reach their final destination.

Put simply, if a sick animal can’t migrate, then neither can its parasites.

On the other hand, migrants have been doing this for millennia. It is possible they have adapted to such challenges, keeping pace in the evolutionary arms race against pathogens and able to migrate even while infected. In this case, pathogens may be more successful at spreading around the world on the backs of their hosts. But which theory does the evidence support?

Sick animals can still spread disease

To try and get to the bottom of this question, we identified as many studies testing this hypothesis as we could, extracted their data, and combined them to look for any overarching patterns.

We found that infected migrants across species definitely felt the cost of being sick: they tended to be in poorer condition, didn’t travel as far, migrated later, and had lower chances of survival. However, infection affected these traits differently. Movement was hit hardest by infection, but survival was only weakly impacted. Infected migrants may not die as they migrate, but perhaps they restrict long-distance movements to save energy.

So pathogens seem to pose some costs on their migratory hosts, which would reduce the chances of migrants spreading pathogens, but perhaps not enough of a cost to eliminate the risk completely.


Read more: Giant marsupials once migrated across an Australian Ice Age landscape


But an important piece of the puzzle is still missing. In humans, travelling increases our risk of getting ill because we come into contact with new germs that our immune system has never encountered before. Are migrants also more susceptible to unfamiliar microbes as they travel to new locations, or have they adapted to this as well?

Guts of migrants resistant to microbial invasion

To investigate the susceptibility of migrants, we went in a different direction and decided to look at the gut bacteria of migratory shorebirds – grey, unassuming birds that forage on beaches or near water, and that undergo some of the longest and fastest migrations in the animal kingdom.

Most animals have hundreds of bacterial species living in their guts, which help break down nutrients and fight off potential pathogens. Every new microbe you ingest can only colonise your gut if the environmental conditions are to its liking, and competition with current residents isn’t too high. In some cases, it may thrive so much it becomes an infection.

The Red-necked stint is highly exposed to sediment microbes as it forages for the microscopic invertebrates that fuel its vast migrations.
Author provided

We found the migratory shorebirds we studied were exceptionally good at resisting invasion from ingested microbes, even after flying thousands of kilometres and putting their gut under extreme physiological strain. Birds that had just returned from migration (during which they stopped in many places in China, Japan, and South East Asia), didn’t carry any more species of bacteria than those that had stayed around the same location for a year.

The ConversationAlthough these results need to be tested in other migratory species, our research suggests that, like human air traffic, pathogens might not get such an easy ride on their migratory hosts as we might assume. There is no doubt that migrants are involved in pathogen dispersal to some degree, but there is increasing evidence that we shouldn’t jump the gun when it comes to blaming migrants.

Alice Risely, PhD candidate in Ecology, Deakin University; Bethany J Hoye, Lecturer in Animal Ecology, University of Wollongong, and Marcel Klaassen, Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Ecology, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia is a global top-ten deforester – and Queensland is leading the way


Noel D Preece, James Cook University and Penny van Oosterzee, James Cook University

When you think of devastating deforestation and extinction you usually think of the Amazon, Borneo and the Congo. But eastern Australia ranks alongside these in the top 10 of the world’s major deforestation fronts – the only one in a developed nation. Most of the clearing is happening in Queensland, and it is accelerating.

Only last year a group of leading ecologists voiced their alarm at new data which showed the clearing of 296,000 hectares of forest in 2013-14. This was three times higher than in 2008-09, kicking Australia up the list as one of the world’s forest-clearing pariahs. At the 2016 Society for Conservation Biology Conference, a Scientists’ Declaration was signed by hundreds of scientists, expressing concern at these clearing rates.


Read more: Queensland land clearing is undermining Australia’s environmental progress


But the latest snapshot, Queensland’s Department of Science report on land cover change published last month, showed a staggering 395,000ha of clearing for 2015-16: an increase of one third on 2014-15. As far as we can tell this rate of increased clearing is unmatched anywhere else on the globe.

showed a staggering 395,000 of clearing for 2015-16: which is an increase of one third on 2014-15, or 133% over the period

Strong vegetation management laws enacted in Queensland – the Vegetation Management Act 1999 – achieved dramatic reductions in forest and woodland loss. But the subsequent Liberal National state government, elected in 2012, overturned these protections.

The current government, elected in 2015, has tried and failed to reinstate the protections. In response, “panic clearing” caused clearing rates to shoot up, in anticipation that the state election will deliver a government that will reintroduce the much-needed protection of forests.

The Queensland Parliament is now in caretaker mode ahead of the November 25 election. The Queensland Labor Party has pledged to reinstate laws to prevent wholesale clearing, while the LNP opposition has vowed to retain current clearing rates.

Forest cleared by bulldozers towing massive chains.
Noel Preece

Australian community and wildlife lose

Whichever way you look at it, there is not a lot of sense in continued clearing. Australia already has some of the highest extinction rates on the planet for plants and animals. With 80% of Queensland’s threatened species living in forest and woodland, more clearing will certainly increase that rate.

Clearing also kills tens of millions of animals across Australia each year, a major animal welfare concern that rarely receives attention. This jeopardises both wildlife and the A$140 million invested in threatened species recovery.


Read more: Land clearing isn’t just about trees – it’s an animal welfare issue too


This rate of clearing neutralises our major environment programs. Just one year of clearing has removed more trees than the bulk of 20 million trees painstakingly planted, at a cost of A$50 million. Australia’s major environment programs simply can’t keep up, and since 2013 are restoring only one-tenth of the extent of land bulldozed just last year.

Restoration costs to improve the quality of waters running onto the Great Barrier Reef are estimated at around A$5 billion to A$10 billion over 10 years. Nearly 40% of the land cleared in Queensland is in reef catchments, which will reverse any water quality gains as sediment pours onto the reef.

Climate efforts nullified

Since 2014, the federal government has invested A$2.55 billion on reducing emissions in the Carbon Farming Initiative through the Emissions Reduction Fund. Currently 189 million tonnes of abatement has been delivered by the Emissions Reduction Fund. This – the central plank of the Australian government’s climate response – will be all but nullified by the end of 2018 with the current clearing rates, and will certainly be wiped out by 2020, when Australia is expected to meet its climate target of 5% below 2000 emissions.

Ironically, this target will be achieved with the help of carried-over results from the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, which Australia was only able to meet because land clearing had decreased between 1990 and 1997.

Why is this happening?

Most of the clearing in Queensland since 1999 has been for pasture. Most good cropping land was cleared decades ago. Removing trees in more marginal lands can increase the carrying capacity for a short time with an immediate, and usually short-lived, financial reward. These rewards come at the expense of long-term sustainability, which future landholders and government will bear.

Large areas of the cleared lands have been subject to substantial erosion and nutrient loss from the newly cleared lands, and land degradation over time, and some areas have suffered massive woody weed incursions.

This is playing out today across the north where pastoralism is a marginal activity at best, with declining terms of trade of about 2% per year, with no net productivity growth, high average debts and low returns, and many enterprises facing insolvency. Clearing vegetation won’t change that.

A recent preliminary valuation of ecosystem services, on the other hand, estimated that uncleared lands are worth A$3,300-$6,100 per hectare per year to the Australian community, compared with productivity of grazing lands of A$18 per hectare.

With a clear divide between the policies Labor and the LNP are taking to the election, now is a good time to give land clearing’s social, economic and environmental impact the scrutiny it deserves.


The ConversationThis article was updated on November 21 to reflect that land clearing increased in by a third in 2015-16 over 2014-15 levels. Previously the article stated an increase of 133%.

Noel D Preece, Adjunct Principal Research Fellow at Charles Darwin and, James Cook University and Penny van Oosterzee, Principal Research Adjunct James Cook University and University Fellow Charles Darwin University, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Time for a global agreement on minerals to fuel the clean energy transition


Damien Giurco, University of Technology Sydney; Nicholas Arndt, Université Grenoble Alpes, and Saleem H. Ali, The University of Queensland

Representatives from around the world are meeting in Bonn this week to discuss progress towards the goals of the Paris climate agreement. A large part of this challenge involves rapidly scaling up the deployment of renewable energy, while curbing fossil fuel use – but little attention has been paid to the minerals that will be needed to build these technologies.

Wind and solar infrastructure, batteries and electric vehicles all require vast amounts of mined (and recycled) resources. These range from copper for wires and electric motors, to lithium and cobalt for batteries, to smaller amounts of rare metals like indium and gallium for solar cells.


Read more: Mining for metals in society’s waste


The problem is that the current system for mining these minerals is not always efficient; it’s polluting and is subject to increased social pressure and public protests. Instead, we need a new international mechanism to coordinate global mineral exploration that looks to our future supply needs.

As technology advances, more and different metals are needed.
Zepf V, Reller A, Rennie C, Ashfield M & Simmons J, BP (2014): Materials critical to the energy industry.

Challenges for minerals supply

While the Paris agreement has created a global framework for managing carbon, nothing similar exists for minerals. This leaves the pursuit of sustainable resource development largely in the hands of mining companies and state-owned enterprises.

Mining these resources generates significant water and air pollution. This problem is increasing: for example, global copper ore quality is declining over time. That means that copper mining now requires excavating twice as much ore as ten years ago to yield the same amount of copper, creating much more mine waste.


Read more: Treasure from trash: how mining waste can be mined a second time


Lower commodity prices have meant that investment in exploring new mine sites has fallen. But it takes a long time to develop new mines – it can often take 20 years to go from finding a metal deposit to beginning mining, and only around 20% of discoveries since 2000 have led to an operating mine.

Lack of investment in exploration is driven by short-term thinking, rather than a long-term plan to supply rising demand.

In parallel, resistance to mining, often at a local level, is increasing worldwide. Environmental catastrophes, of which there have been many examples, erode social trust, often delaying or stopping mine development.

A new global mechanism to more effectively plan resource supply could help rebuild trust in local communities, limit price spikes to ensure equitable access to metal resources, and balance the international tension which arises as industries and governments compete for minerals from a shrinking list of countries able to tolerate and profit from sustaining a mining industry.

A global agreement on mineral resources

Developing a global mechanism will of course be difficult, requiring substantive dialogue and strong leadership. But there are organisations that could step up, such as the United Nations Environment Assembly, or the newly established Intergovernmental Forum on Mining Metals and Sustainable Development.

The global community is well aware of the threat that rising sea levels pose to low-lying countries. We need similar awareness of the crucial role minerals are playing in the energy transition, and the risk that supply problems could derail sustainability goals.

To that end, we need to globally coordinate several crucial aspects of mineral development. To start with, while most detailed information on where minerals are mined and sold is privately held, there is publicly available data that could be used to predict possible imbalances in supply and demand internationally (for example copper, iron, lithium, indium). Publicly-funded institutions have an important role here. They can assess how known supply will meet future demand, and deliver insight into the changing environmental impact.

It should also be entirely possible to develop inventories of recyclable metals, which can be an important supplement to large mining operations.

Compiling inventories of recyclable metals is underway across Europe as part of a move towards a circular economy (where as much waste as possible is repurposed).


Read more: Explainer: what is the circular economy


While recycling for for metals like lithium for less than 1%, around 40% of steel demand is met from scrap recycled during manufacturing and from end-of-life products and infrastructure. Thinking smarter about eventual dismantling of buildings at the time when they are built, can support better use of recycled resources.

Geoscience agencies already offer maps of underground minerals, demonstrating that this kind of co-ordinated perspective is feasible. Extending this approach to recyclables can mitigate environmental impact and ease the social objections to new mines.

A global mechanism for mineral exploration and supply could also be an opportunity to promote best-practice for responsible mining, with a focus on social license and fair and transparent royalty arrangements.

Overcoming resistance

It’s a challenging proposition, especially as many countries display less enthusiasm for international agreements. However, it will be increasingly difficult to meet the Paris targets without tackling this problem.

In the decades ahead, our mineral supply will still need to double or triple to meet the demand for electric vehicles and other technologies required by our growing global population.

In short, resource efficiency and jobs of the future depend on an assured mineral supply. This should be a nonpartisan issue, across the global political spectrum.


The ConversationThe authors gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Edmund Nickless, Chair, New Activities Strategic Implementation Committee, International Union of Geological Sciences to this article.

Damien Giurco, Professor of Resource Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Nicholas Arndt, Professor of Geosciences, Université Grenoble Alpes, and Saleem H. Ali, Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment, University of Delaware (USA); Professorial Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.