Want to beat climate change? Protect our natural forests



Natural forest systems are far better at adapting to change conditions than young, degraded or plantation forests.
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Kate Dooley, University of Melbourne and Brendan Mackey, Griffith University

Tomorrow a special report on how land use affects climate change will be released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Land degradation, deforestation, and the expansion of our deserts, along with agriculture and the other ways people shape land, are all major contributors to global climate change.

Conversely, trees remove carbon dioxide and store it safely in their trunks, roots and branches. Research published in July estimated that planting a trillion trees could be a powerful tool against climate change.




Read more:
Our cities need more trees, but some commonly planted ones won’t survive climate change


However, planting new trees as a climate action pales in comparison to protecting existing forests. Restoring degraded forests and expanding them by 350 million hectares will store a comparable amount of carbon as 900 million hectares of new trees.

Natural climate solutions

Using ecological mechanisms for reducing and storing carbon is a growing field of study. Broadly known as “natural climate solutions”, carbon can be stored in wetlands, grasslands, natural forests and agriculture.

This is called “sequestration”, and the more diverse and longer-lived the ecosystem, the more it helps mitigate the effect of climate change.

Allowing trees to regenerate naturally is a more effective, immediate and low-cost method of removing and storing atmospheric carbon than planting new trees.
Shutterstock

Research has estimated these natural carbon sinks can provide 37% of the CO₂ reduction needed to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2℃.

But this research can be wrongly interpreted to imply that the priority is to plant young trees. In fact, the major climate solution is the protection and recovery of carbon-rich and long-lived ecosystems, especially natural forests.




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With the imminent release of the new IPCC report, now is a good time to prioritise the protection and recovery of existing ecosystems over planting trees.

Forest ecosystems (including the soil) store more carbon than the atmosphere. Their loss would trigger emissions that would exceed the remaining carbon budget for limiting global warming to less than the 2℃ above pre-industrial levels, let alone 1.5℃, threshold.




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Natural forest systems, with their rich and complex biodiversity, the product of ecological and evolutionary processes, are stable, resilient, far better at adapting to changing conditions and store more carbon than young, degraded or plantation forests.

Protect existing trees

Forest degradation is caused by selective logging, temporary clearing, and other human land use. In some areas, emissions from degradation can exceed those of deforestation. Once damaged, natural ecosystems are more vulnerable to drought, fires and climate change.

Recently published research found helping natural forest regrow can have a globally significant effect on carbon dioxide levels. This approach – called proforestation – is a more effective, immediate and low-cost method for removing and storing atmospheric carbon in the long-term than tree planting. And it can be used across many different kinds of forests around the world.

Avoiding further loss and degradation of primary forests and intact forest landscapes, and allowing degraded forests to naturally regrow, would reduce global carbon emissions.
Shutterstock

Avoiding further loss and degradation of primary forests and intact forest landscapes, and allowing degraded forests to naturally regrow, would reduce global carbon emissions annually by about 1 gigatonnes (Gt), and reduce another 2-4 Gt of carbon emissions just through natural regrowth.




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Research has predicted that protecting primary forests while allowing degraded forests to recover, along with limited expansion of natural forests, would remove 153 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere between now and 2150.

Every country with forests can contribute to this effort. In fact, research shows that community land management is the best way to improve natural forests and help trees recover from degradation.

By the numbers

Tree planting carries more limited climate benefits. The recent Science paper focused on mapping and quantifying increases in tree canopy cover in areas that naturally support trees. However, increasing canopy cover through natural forest regeneration can sequester 40 times more carbon over the course of the century than establishing new plantations.




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We need to think very carefully about how we use land that has already been cleared: land is a finite resource, and we need to grow food and resources for a global population set to hit 9 billion by 2050.

We need to understand land as a finite resource and accomodate for a global population set to hit 9 billion by 2050.
Shutterstock

Any expansion of natural forest area is best achieved through allowing degraded forests to naturally recover. Allowing trees to regenerate naturally, using nearby remnants of primary forests and seed banks in the soil of recently cleared forests, is more likely to result in a resilient and diverse forest than planting massive numbers of seedlings.

Instead of planting entirely new areas, we should prioritise reconnecting forested areas and restoring the edges of forest, to protect their mature core. This means our carbon-storing forests will be more resilient and longer-lasting.




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For forests to effectively help avert dangerous climate change, global and regional policies are needed to protect, restore and regenerate natural forests, alongside a carbon-zero energy economy.


A version of this article was co-published with Pursuit.The Conversation

Kate Dooley, Research Fellow, Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne and Brendan Mackey, Director of the Griffith Climate Change Response Program, Griffith University

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

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Reducing food waste can protect our health, as well as our planet’s



File 20180830 195298 whfufy.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Smaller portions reduce food waste and waistlines.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Liza Barbour, Monash University and Julia McCartan, Monash University

Globally, one-third of food produced for human consumption is wasted. Food waste costs Australia A$20 billion each year and is damaging our planet’s resources by contributing to climate change and inefficient land, fertiliser and freshwater use.

And it’s estimated if no further action is taken to slow rising obesity rates, it will cost Australia A$87.7 billion over the next ten years. Preventable chronic diseases are Australia’s leading cause of ill health, and conditions such as coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, some forms of cancer and type 2 diabetes are linked to obesity and unhealthy diets.

But we can tackle these two major issues of obesity and food waste together.




Read more:
Melbourne wastes 200 kg of food per person a year: it’s time to get serious


Avoid over-consumption of food

Described as metabolic food waste, the consumption of food in excess of nutritional requirements uses valuable food system resources and manifests as overweight and obesity.

The first of the Australian dietary guidelines is:

To achieve and maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and choose amounts of nutritious food and drinks to meet your energy needs.

In 2013, researchers defined three principles for a healthy and sustainable diet. The first was:

Any food that is consumed above a person’s energy requirement represents an avoidable environmental burden in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, use of natural resources and pressure on biodiversity.




Read more:
Portion size affects how much you eat despite your appetite


Reduce consumption of processed, packaged foods

Ultra-processed foods are not only promoting obesity, they pose a great threat to our environment. The damage to our planet not only lies in the manufacture and distribution of these foods but also in their disposal. Food packaging (bottles, containers, wrappers) accounts for almost two-thirds of total packaging waste by volume.

Ultra-processed foods are high in calories, refined sugar, saturated fat and salt, and they’re dominating Australia’s food supply. These products are formulated and marketed to promote over-consumption, contributing to our obesity epidemic.

Processed foods promote over-consumption and leave packaging behind.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Healthy and sustainable dietary recommendations promote the consumption of fewer processed foods, which are energy-dense, highly processed and packaged. This ultimately reduces both the risk of dietary imbalances and the unnecessary use of environmental resources.

Author Michael Pollan put it best when he said, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.”




Read more:
Food addiction: how processed food makes you eat more


So what do we need to do?

In response to the financial and environmental burden of food waste, the federal government’s National Food Waste Strategy aims to halve food waste in Australia by 2030. A$133 million has been allocated over the next decade to a research centre which can assist the environment, public health and economic sectors to work together to address both food waste and obesity.

Other countries, including Brazil and the United Kingdom acknowledge the link between health and environmental sustainability prominently in their dietary guidelines.

One of Brazil’s five guiding principles states that dietary recommendations must take into account the impact of the means of production and distribution on social justice and the environment. The Qatar national dietary guidelines explicitly state “reduce leftovers and waste”.

Many would be surprised to learn Australia’s dietary guidelines include tips to minimise food waste:

store food appropriately, dispose of food waste appropriately (e.g. compost, worm farms), keep food safely and select foods with appropriate packaging and recycle.

These recommendations are hidden in Appendix G of our guidelines, despite efforts from leading advocates to give them a more prominent position. To follow international precedence, these recommendations should be moved to a prominent location in our guidelines.




Read more:
Update Australia’s dietary guidelines to consider sustainability


At a local government level, councils can encourage responsible practices to minimise food waste by subsidising worm farms and compost bins, arranging kerbside collection of food scraps and enabling better access to soft plastic recycling programs such as Red Cycle.




Read more:
Campaigns urging us to ‘care more’ about food waste miss the point


Portion and serving sizes should be considered by commercial food settings. Every year Australians eat 2.5 billion meals out and waste 2.2 million tonnes of food via the commercial and industrial sectors. Evidence shows reducing portion sizes in food service settings leads to a reduction in both plate waste and over-consumption.

Given the cost of food waste and obesity to the economy, and the impact on the health of our people and our planet, reducing food waste can address two major problems facing humanity today.The Conversation

Liza Barbour, Lecturer, Monash University and Julia McCartan, Research Officer, Monash University

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

The plan to protect wildlife displaced by the Hume Highway has failed



File 20170525 13190 1ifqnnv
Hundreds of large old trees were removed when the Hume Highway was widened.
Brian Yap/Flickr, CC BY-NC

David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Megan C Evans, The University of Queensland, and Philip Gibbons, Australian National University

It’s no secret that human development frequently comes at a cost to other creatures. As our urban footprint expands, native habitat contracts. To compensate for this, most Australian governments require developers to invest in biodiversity offsetting, where habitat is created or protected elsewhere to counterbalance the impact of construction.

Researchers monitored hundreds of nest boxes used to offset habitat loss.
Mason Crane, Author provided

Although biodiversity offsetting is frequently used in Australia – and is becoming increasingly popular around the world – we rarely know whether offsets are actually effective.

That’s why we spent four years monitoring the program designed to offset the environmental losses caused by widening the Hume Highway between Holbrook and Coolac, New South Wales. Our research has found it was completely ineffective.


Map courtesy Google/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Trading trees for boxes

The roadworks required the removal of large, old, hollow-bearing trees, which are critical nesting sites for many animals, including several threatened species. To compensate for these losses, the developer was required to install one nest box for every hollow that was lost – roughly 600 nest boxes were installed.

Wild honeybees occupied many nest boxes.
Mason Crane, Author provided

Many of the boxes were specifically designed for three threatened species: the squirrel glider, the superb parrot and the brown treecreeper. We monitored the offset for four years to see whether local wildlife used the nest boxes.

We found that the nest boxes were rarely used, with just seven records of the squirrel glider, two of the brown treecreeper, and none of the superb parrot. We often saw all three species in large old tree hollows in the area around the boxes we monitored.

Even more worryingly, almost 10% of the boxes collapsed, were stolen or otherwise rendered ineffective just four years after being installed. Perversely, we found that invasive species such as feral bees and black rats frequently occupied the nest boxes.

The offset clearly failed to deliver the environmental outcomes that were promised. Indeed, researchers have been concerned for some time now that offsetting can be misused and abused.

What can be done?

It’s worth noting that research supports using nest boxes as a habitat replacement. However, they may never be effective for species such as the superb parrot. It’s not quite clear why some animals use nest boxes and others don’t, but earlier monitoring projects in the same area found superb parrots consistently avoid them.

Still, concrete steps can – and should – be taken to improve similar offset programs.

First, the one-to-one ratio of nest boxes to tree hollows was inadequate; far more nest boxes needed to be installed to replace the natural hollows that were lost.

There also was no requirement to regularly replace nest boxes as they degrade. It can take a hundred years or more for trees to develop natural hollows suitable for nesting wildlife. To truly offset their removal, thousands of boxes may be required over many decades.

An old hollow-bearing river red gum. Trees like this are vital habitat for many species.
Peter Halasz/Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA

Second, nest boxes clearly cannot compensate for the many other key ecological values of large old trees (such as carbon storage, flowering pulses or foraging habitat). This suggests that more effort is needed at the beginning of a development proposal to avoid damaging environmental assets that are extremely difficult to replace – such as large old trees.

Third, where it is simply impossible to protect key features of the environment during infrastructure development, more holistic strategies should be considered. For example, in the case of the woodlands around the Hume Highway, encouraging natural regeneration can help replace old trees.

Tree planting on farms can also make a significant contribution to biodiversity – and some of these may eventually become hollow-bearing trees. A combination of planting new trees and maintaining adequate artificial hollows while those trees mature might be a better approach.

Being accountable for failure

When an offset program fails, it’s unlikely anyone will be asked to rectify the situation. This is because developers are only required to initiate an offset, and are not responsible for their long-term outcomes.

In the case of the Hume Highway development, the conditions of approval specified that nest boxes were to be installed, but not that they be effective.

Despite the ecological failure of the offset (and over A$200,000 invested), the developer has met these legal obligations.

This distinction between offset compliance and offset effectiveness is a real problem. The Australian government has produced a draft policy of outcomes-based conditions, but using these conditions isn’t mandatory.

The poor results of the Hume Highway offset program are sobering. However, organisations like Roads and Maritime Services are to be commended for ensuring that monitoring was completed and for making the data available for public scrutiny – many agencies do not even do that.

The ConversationIndeed, through monitoring and evaluation we can often learn more from failures than successes. There are salutary lessons here, critical to ensuring mistakes are not repeated.

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Megan C Evans, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Environmental Policy, The University of Queensland, and Philip Gibbons, Senior Lecturer, Australian National University

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

Marine parks and fishery management: what’s the best way to protect fish?


Caleb Gardner, University of Tasmania

The federal government is considering changes to Australia’s marine reserves to implement a national system. This week The Conversation is looking at the science behind marine reserves and how to protect our oceans.


While academics often focus on biodiversity objectives for marine parks, the public and political debate tends to come down to one thing: fishing.

When former federal MP Rob Oakeshott cast one of the deciding votes in support of the Commonwealth marine parks plan in 2013, he explained that he believed they benefit fisheries. The federal government has also emphasised the benefit of marine parks to fisheries production.

There’s also an academic debate. When a study showed that the Great Barrier Reef marine park had harmed fisheries production, there was a passionate response from other experts. This is despite advocates arguing that reserves are primarily about biodiversity conservation, rather than fishing production.

Clearly, fishing is a hot issue for marine parks. So what does the science say?

How do marine parks protect fish?

The proposed benefits to fisheries from marine parks include: protection or insurance against overfishing; “spillover”, where larvae or juveniles from the parks move out and increase the overall production; habitat protection from damaging fishing gear; and managing the ecosystem effects of fishing such as resilience against climate change.

Marine parks regulate activities, mainly fishing, within a specified area. They come in a variety of categories. Some allow fishing, but the most contentious are “no-take” marine parks.

Fishery managers also sometimes close areas of the ocean to fishing. This is different to how no-take marine parks work in two ways: the legislative authority is different (being through fisheries rather than environmental legislation); and the closures usually target a specific fishery, whereas no-take marine parks usually ban all fishing.

Fishery closures, rather than no-take marine parks, are usually applied to protect special areas for particular fish, such as spawning sites or nursery areas. They are also used to protect habitats, such as in the case of trawl closures, which allow the use of other gear such as longlines in the same location.

Fisheries legislation bans damaging fishing gear outright, while benign gears are allowed. In contrast, no-take marine parks tend to exclude all gear types.

Displacing fishers

Neither marine parks nor fishery closures regulate the amount of catch and fishing effort. They only control the location. Commercial fishers take most fish caught in Commonwealth waters and most of this is limited by catch quotas.

When a no-take marine park closes an area to fishing, fishers and their catch are displaced into other areas of the ocean. This occurs for all types of fishing, including recreational fishing. Recreational fishers displaced by marine parks don’t stop fishing, they just fish somewhere else – and the same number of fishers are squeezed into a smaller space.

Marine parks increase the intensity of fishing impacts across the wider coast, which is an uncomfortable outcome for marine park advocates. Modelling of Victorian marine parks showed that displaced catch would harm lobster stocks and associated ecosystems, and was counterproductive to their fishery management objective of rebuilding stock.

Because ecosystems don’t respond in predictable ways, depletion of fish stocks from the fishing displaced from marine parks could lead to severe ecosystem outcomes.

For this reason, a second and separate management change is often needed after marine parks are declared, which is to reduce the number of fishers and fish caught to prevent risk of impacts from the park.

Controlling how many fish are caught (which is what traditional fisheries management does) has substantially more influence on overall fish abundance than controlling where fish are caught with parks, as shown recently on the Great Barrier Reef.

Public cost

Commonwealth fisheries catch quotas are routinely reduced if a fishery harms the sustainability of the marine environment. There’s no compensation to fishers, so there’s no cost to the public, other than a possible reduced supply of fish.

Catches can also be reduced to manage fishing displaced by marine reserves and the outcome is identical except in terms of the public cost. Creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park led to over A$200 million in payments to displaced fishers. Another publicly funded package is planned for the Commonwealth marine reserves.

Marine parks also have high recurring public cost because boundaries need to be policed at sea. Catch quotas can be policed at the wharf, with compliance costs fully recovered from industry.

Do marine parks help fish and fishers?

Evidence of a benefit to fisheries from marine parks is scarce. However, there are some clear examples of fishing displacement that is so minor that there has been an overall increase in fish inside and outside the park.

These examples show that marine parks can sometimes benefit fish stocks, the fishery and also the overall marine ecosystem. However, these examples come from situations where traditional fishery management has not been applied to prevent overfishing.

This is consistent with modelling of marine parks that shows they only increase overall fish populations when there has been severe overfishing. This generally means that if there’s already effective traditional fisheries management, marine reserves cannot benefit fish stocks and fisheries, or restock fish outside the reserve (spillover) (see also here).

In jurisdictions where fisheries management is lacking, any regulation, including through marine reserves, is better than nothing. But this isn’t the situation with Australia’s Commonwealth fisheries where harvest strategies are used and overfishing has been eliminated.

The conclusions from modelling of marine reserves mean that the areas of the reserves that limit fishing would be expected to reduce fishery production and harm our ability to contribute to global food security.

The Coral Sea marine reserve, in particular, represents an area with known large stocks of fish, especially tuna, that could be harvested sustainably. Limiting fishing in the Coral Sea eliminates any potential for these resources to help feed Australians or contribute to global food supplies.

The potential sustainable, ecologically acceptable harvest from the Coral Sea is unknown, so we don’t know the full scale of what’s being lost and how much the recent changes reduce this problem, although Papua New Guinea sustainably harvests 150,000-300,000 tonnes of tuna in its part of the sea.

Allowing fishing doesn’t mean the oceans aren’t protected. Existing fisheries management is already obliged to ensure fishing doesn’t affect sustainability of the marine environment.

The Conversation

Caleb Gardner, Principal Research Fellow, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania

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

Whale of a problem: why do humpback whales protect other species from attack?


Tracey Rogers, UNSW Australia

A group of killer whales are on the hunt. They work together to submerge and drown a whale calf. But then more whales appear.

The newly arrived humpbacks bellow a trumpet-like call, and wield their five-metre-long pectoral flippers like swords against the prowling killer whales.

The killer whales are driven away from the calf, and the humpbacks also move away. As they do, the killer whales turn back and descend on the calf once more. In response, the humpbacks swing around and return to the calf’s defence.

The humpbacks position themselves close to the calf, between it and the killer whales, potentially putting themselves in harm’s way.

This process continues and repeats for many hours, but it is not a calf of their own species, it is a grey whale calf.

You can see the drama unfold as the humpbacks fend off the killer whales.

This is not an isolated case. Robert Pitman, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, and his colleagues report more than 100 incidents where humpback whales have approached or actively intervened in killer whale hunting attempts.

Surprisingly, most of these have been predation attempts on other species, such as seals, other whales or even fish.

The question is: why would these humpback whales place themselves in danger by interposing themselves between one of their few predators – killer whales – and an individual of an entirely different species?

You scratch my back…

Altruistic behaviour is some of the most difficult to explain in evolutionary terms. In a biological context, altruism refers to cases where one individual’s behaviour provides a benefit to another individual at a cost to itself.

It doesn’t need to be as dramatic as throwing themselves on a grenade, but even placing themselves at a small disadvantage could jeopardise their chances of surviving and reproducing.

And if they don’t reproduce, then neither do the genes that encouraged the individual to be altruistic. This is why – all else being equal – you would expect altruistic genes to slowly disappear from a population over multiple generations.

But there are cases of altruistic behaviour in nature, particularly among closely related groups. One example is an individual meerkat who calls to alert its group to the presence of a predator, particularly as that call could make the predator more likely to notice the vigilant meerkat.

This kind of behaviour can evolve and remain stable in a population due to a process called kin selection. This is because the meerkat is closely related to the other members of its group, so it shares many genes with them. Even if it does end up sacrificing itself, if it helps its relatives survive, they may also be carrying the genes that encourage altruism.

Other cases of altruism in nature are supported by recriprocation: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

An example would be vampire bats that share blood meals. They do so on the assumption that their friend will return the favour at some later date.

However, for kin selection or reciprocal altruism to evolve, there needs to be a high level of social cohesion within the group.

For example, individuals need to be able to recognise who is a relative or a friend, and who is not. Presumably, you are less likely to put your neck on the line for a distant relative or for someone who is not likely to repay the favour.

So it might not be surprising that a humpback mother would vigorously defend her own calf from attacking killer whales. But why would a humpback approach and position itself between attacking killer whales and another whale’s calf?

Killer whales are a dangerous predator but they pose little threat to an adult humpback whale.

Spillover

As mentioned above, if an individual is prone to behave in a way that reduces their chance of surviving and reproducing, we would expect the genes that promote that behaviour to dwindle over generations and eventually vanish from the population. And even if an adult humpback puts itself at minimal risk by interfering with killer whales, minimal risk is more than zero risk by avoiding them altogether.

Pitman and his colleagues think there might be more social cohesion among humpbacks than we previously thought, and kin selection and/or reciprocal altruism could be playing a part.

Individual humpback whales return to the same region to breed. This means that there is a good possibility that humpbacks are related to their immediate neighbours. Pitman suggests this means it may be worth a humpback helping other humpbacks to protect their calves from killer whale attacks.

However, it is trickier to explain apparent altruism directed towards other species. Pitman and his colleagues explain that for the humpback whale, this intervention on behalf of other species is a “spillover” behaviour. They suggest it is an extension of the humpback whales’ “drive” to protect their own calves.

Humpbacks may have learned to respond to vocalisations of attacking killer whales, which trigger them to drive the killer whales away, regardless of the species being attacked.

If this tendency to drive away killer whales whenever they are attacking has helped humpbacks to protect their own calves, then the genes that promote it could be maintained in the population, even if other species benefit at times.

This interspecies altruistic behaviour may be “inadvertent” altruism – it can be altruism in the individual case but it is ultimately driven by self-interest.

The Conversation

Tracey Rogers, Associate Professor Evolution & Ecology, UNSW Australia

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

The best way to protect us from climate change? Save our ecosystems


Tara Martin, CSIRO and James Watson, The University of Queensland

When we think about adapting humanity to the challenges of climate change, it’s tempting to reach for technological solutions. We talk about seeding our oceans and clouds with compounds designed to trigger rain or increasing carbon uptake. We talk about building grand structures to protect our coastlines from rising sea levels and storm surges.

However, as we discuss in Nature Climate Change, our focus on these high-tech, heavily engineered solutions is blinding us to a much easier, cheaper, simpler and better solution to adaptation: look after our planet’s ecosystems, and they will look after us.

Biting the hand that feeds us

People are currently engaged in wholesale destruction of the systems that shelter us, clean our water, clean our air, feed us and protect us from extreme weather. Sometimes this destruction is carried out for the purpose of protecting us from the threats posed by climate change.

For example, in Melanesia’s low-lying islands, coral reefs are dynamited to provide the raw building materials for seawalls in an attempt to slow the impact of sea-level rise.

A seawall built using coral in Papua New Guinea
J.E.M Watson

In many parts of the world, including Africa, Canada and Australia, drought has led to the opening up of intact forest systems, protected grasslands and prairies for grazing and agriculture.

Similarly, the threat of climate change has driven the development of more drought-tolerant crops that can survive climate variability, but these survival abilities also make those plant species more likely to become invasive.

On the surface, these might seem like sensible ways to reduce the impacts of climate change. But they are actually likely to contribute to climate change and increase its impact on people.

Sea walls and drought-tolerant crops do have a place in adapting to climate change: if they’re sensitive to ecosystems. For example, if storm protection is required on low-lying islands, don’t build a seawall from the coral reef that offers the island its only current protection. Bring in the concrete and steel needed to build it.

How ecosystems protect us

Intact coral reefs act as barriers against storm surges, reducing wave energy by an average of 97%. They are also a valuable source of protein that support local livelihoods.

Similarly, mangroves and seagrass beds provide a buffer zone against storms and reduce wave energy, as well as being a nursery for many of the fish and other marine creatures that our fishing industries are built on.

Intact forests supply a host of valuable ecosystem services that are not only taken for granted, but actively squandered when those forests are decimated by land clearing.

There is now clear evidence that intact forests have a positive influence on both planetary climate and local weather regimes. Forests also provide shelter from extreme weather events, and are home to a host of other valuable ecosystems that are important to human populations as sources of food, medicine and timber.

Forests play a key role in capturing, storing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, a role that will likely become increasingly important in avoiding the worst of climate change. Yet we continue to decimate forests, woodlands and grasslands.

Northern Australia is home to the largest savannah on earth, containing enormous carbon stores and influencing both local and global climate. Despite its inherent value as a carbon store, there has been discussion around whether these northern regions might be opened up to become Australia’s new food bowl, putting those extensive carbon stories in jeopardy.

Cheaper than techno-solutions

In Vietnam, 12,000 hectares of mangroves have been planted at a cost of US$1.1 million, but saving the US$7.3 million per year that would have been spent on maintaining dykes.

Planting mangroves in the Philippines to restore forests.
Trees ForTheFuture/Flickr, CC BY

In Louisiana, the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led to an examination of how coastal salt marshes might have reduced some of the wave energy in the hurricane-associated storm surges.

Data have now confirmed that salt marshes would have significantly reduced the impact of those surges, and stabilised the shoreline against further insult, at far less cost than engineered coastal defences. With this data in hand, discussions are now beginning around how to restore the Louisiana salt marshes to insulate against future extreme weather events.

US foreign aid in Papua New Guinea has also encouraged the restoration and protection of mangroves for the same reason.

Instead of turning cattle to graze on native grasslands and savannah during times of drought, farmers struggling to sustain livestock in marginal areas could instead be funded to farm carbon and biodiversity by restoring or preserving these ecosystems. This might involve reducing the number of cattle, or in some cases even removing cattle entirely. Australia is very well-informed about the carbon value of its many and varied ecosystems, but is yet to fully put that knowledge into practice.

The cost of adapting to climate change using largely technological solutions has been put at a staggering US$70-100 billion per year. This is small change compared to current global energy subsidies estimated by the International Monetary Fund for 2015 at US$5.3 trillion per year.

Protecting ecosystems reduces the risk to people and infrastructure, as well as the degree of climate change: a win-win.

There is no doubt that technological solutions have a role to play in climate adaptation but not at the expense of intact functioning ecosystems. It is time to set a policy agenda that actively rewards those countries, industries and entrepreneurs who develop ecosystem-sensitive adaptation strategies.

The Conversation

Tara Martin, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO and James Watson, Associate professor, The University of Queensland

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

We discovered 20 new fish in northern Australia – now we need to protect them


Matthew Le Feuvre, University of Melbourne; James Shelley, University of Melbourne; Stephen Swearer, University of Melbourne, and Tim Dempster, University of Melbourne

We recently discovered 20 new species of fish in the Kimberley region of north-west Australia (one of them has been named after writer Tim Winton).

But that’s only the start of the story. At a time when the federal government is redoubling efforts to develop northern Australia, our discovery is a timely reminder of how little we know about our country.

A 2014 CSIRO report found 1.4 million hectares of land in northern Australia could be irrigated. Underlying this expansion would be approximately 90 large dams and numerous smaller water-regulating structures such as weirs.

While this could boost the northern Australian economy, impacts on aquatic ecosystems from altered flow regimes, habitat modification and reduced water quality are likely to be significant.

The long-nosed sooty grunter is found in a single river in the Kimberley.
Matthew Le Feuvre & James Shelley, Author provided

Threatened waterways

Fish are the most researched group of species living in Australia’s freshwater ecosystems. As such, we can use them as indicators of how much we know about these environments.

To date, research effort has been focused on south-east Australia. What stands out is a lack of research across much of the country, particularly in the north.

Despite this, northern Australia’s freshwater fish fauna is very diverse and includes many fish found across tiny areas. Unfortunately the lack of research means that for many of northern Australia’s fishes, all we know is that they exist.

Under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, 16% of Australia’s freshwater fish are listed as threatened. But most of the species analysed are from the rivers of south-east Australia, which are most affected by people.

In a recent study we identified another 55 potentially vulnerable species that meet the criteria for conservation listing.

When we mapped the already listed and potentially vulnerable fish species, we found hotspots for fish conservation in the Kimberley, the Wet Tropics and Arnhem Land.

Map a) shows the number of currently listed threatened fish. Map b) shows the number of species that we identified as potentially vulnerable. Map c) shows river condition (1=best quality; 8=worst). Map shows d) freshwater fish research effort across Australia (red=most effort).
Matthew Le Feuvre, Tim Dempster, James Shelley and Steve Swearer, Author provided

While often overlooked, Australia’s freshwater fish are almost as unique as our kangaroos and koalas: 74% of these fish are found nowhere else in the world.

If enigmatic northern Australian species, such as the saratoga (Scleropages leichardti), the long-nosed sooty grunter (Hephaestus epirrhinos) or the Prince Regent gudgeon (Hypseleotris regalis) are lost, we contribute to an ongoing global freshwater fish extinction crisis. Australia’s freshwater fish deserve adequate protection.

Exploring the north

The Kimberley in northern Western Australia is rugged, remote, pristine and holds a number of species found nowhere else. We decided to investigate the region’s freshwater fishes.

Before our project began, we knew that the region was home to 50 species of freshwater fish, or almost a quarter of Australia’s freshwater fish species. Eighteen of these are found only in the Kimberley region.

Over the past three years, we spent nine months surveying over 70 sites on 17 of the Kimberley’s rivers. We found that many of the endemic species are potentially particularly vulnerable if their environment were to change. For example, the long-nosed sooty grunter is large, found in a single river, rare and exclusively carnivorous, making it vulnerable to extinction.

Excitingly, we also uncovered 20 new species of freshwater fish. This increases the known freshwater fish species in Australia by roughly 10% and, with 70 species in total, it makes the Kimberley the most diverse region for freshwater fish.

Many of the new species are large, clearly distinct fish, which could be identified as new species when we observed them from the riverbank. We found most of these new species in rivers we could only access by helicopter.

Put simply, due to the difficultly and expense of sampling the remote Kimberley wilderness, we just haven’t looked hard enough in the region’s rivers. Entire river systems in the Kimberley remain unsampled and we should not be surprised to uncover more species unknown to science.

What else is out there?

Our findings raise questions about the environmental sustainability of developing northern Australia. If we can find 20 new species of freshwater fish in nine months of fieldwork in the Kimberley, how many more species are present across the rest of northern Australia?

Fish are big and easy to find compared to most of the smaller aquatic life. They represent the conspicuous tip of the iceberg of what lives in our rivers. What happens if we investigate more cryptic or poorly known taxa such as amphibians or invertebrates?

The Prince Regent gudgeon.
Matthew Le Feuvre & James Shelley, Author provided

How can we manage and protect species we don’t know exist? Before we develop the north, we need to know what’s out there.

The majority of northern rivers remain in relatively good condition, so there is ample opportunity to ensure that species are not lost as a result of development. Fortunately, most major developments are a decade or more away, so there is time to gather this information.

Learning from the south

Many rivers in southern Australia have been degraded by habitat modification, altered flow patterns, invasive species, barriers to fish movement, reduced water quality and overexploitation.

Many fish species are threatened. Of 46 species found in the Murray-Darling Basin, 19 are listed as threatened at the state or national level.

What have we learned?

River flow, infrastructure and land use all need to be actively managed to maintain healthy rivers and allow key ecological processes, such as migrations and the inundation of floodplains, to continue. We need to be vigilant to prevent alien species invading.

A major source of conflict in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was the allocation of water to the environment. Considering the environment as a stakeholder at the beginning of this process could have avoided future conflicts.

These practices will need to be adapted to the highly seasonal rainfall of northern Australia, which will be challenging. Intact rivers with particularly high numbers of species found nowhere else may be good candidates for freshwater protected areas, which are rare in Australia.

We need to ensure that our unique freshwater fishes are properly conserved. With research and good planning, we can ensure we do not repeat the sins of the past in northern Australia.

The Conversation

Matthew Le Feuvre, PhD candidate, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; James Shelley, PhD candidate, School of Biosciences, University of Melbourne; Stephen Swearer, Professor of Marine biology, University of Melbourne, and Tim Dempster, Associate professor in Marine Biology, University of Melbourne

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