A new wave of rock removal could spell disaster for farmland wildlife

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Rocks being removed to make way for farming.

Damian R. Michael, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

My (DM’s) perception of threatened species habitats changed the first time I encountered a population of endangered lizards living under small surface rocks in a heavily cleared grazing paddock. That was 20 years ago, at a time when land managers were well aware of the biodiversity values of conservation reserves and remnant patches of native vegetation. But back then we knew very little about the biodiversity values of the agricultural parts of the landscape.

Much has changed. Research has clearly shown the important ecological roles of different elements of the landscape for maintaining biodiversity on farms, especially for vertebrates such as carnivorous marsupials, frogs, snakes and lizards. Rocky outcrops and areas of surface rock, often termed bush rock, are among them.

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Areas of bush rock are biological hotspots. They represent island refuges for specialised plants and animals, and help ecosystems to thrive even in heavily cleared landscapes. In Australia, more than 200 vertebrate species depend on rocky outcrops to survive, and many of these species are found only in agricultural areas.

Recent surveys by The Australian National University on working farms in New South Wales found new populations of the threatened Pink-tailed Worm-lizard. Rocky outcrops and surface bush rock are the reason these reptiles can keep living in grazing landscapes.

Unfortunately, these critical habitats get little protection in agricultural regions. Rocky habitats may look tough, but they are fragile ecosystems and are easily damaged. Vast areas of surface rock have been removed and previously undisturbed outcrops are at risk of being destroyed by legal and routine farming activities.

The new wave of habitat loss

Licensed operators have been removing bush rock for use in landscape gardening for several decades. This is of growing concern, but is not a new threat to our native wildlife. Instead, more sophisticated technology is being developed which turns vast tracts of rocky country into farmland by crushing and destroying surface rock within minutes.

Across Australia, heavy duty sleds are being towed behind tractors to rip and remove rocky breakaways, ridgelines and small outcrops. The machinery operates like a large cheese grater, ripping bedrock with a row of tines, then crushing the displaced rocks with a large roller. These machines are designed to process large areas at once and can crush an entire hectare of rock every hour.

Turning bushrock into farmland.

Large areas of Western Australia, South Australia and western Victoria have been subject to widespread rock removal using these machines. This increasing agricultural practice has largely gone unnoticed.

While not illegal, rock-crushing has massive implications for the populations of native mammals, frogs and reptiles in agricultural areas. This approach to farming is at odds with the principle of land sharing, which encourages agriculture and wildlife conservation on the same land. Pressure to maximise productivity by increasing crop yields and intensifying land use could spell disaster for native species that live in these landscapes.

Some argue that using this new technology reduces soil damage by minimising how often agricultural machinery passes over the land. But this is not enough to offset the loss of this critical habitat. Surely we should be trying to find ways to protect and manage these environments in our cropping landscapes rather than developing ways to destroy them?

More rock-crushing.

A gap in the law

The removal of bush rock is listed as a key threatening process under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995. However, this does not include the removal of rock where it is necessary for carrying out a development or activity with an existing approval under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. Nor does it prevent the removal of rock from paddocks when it is a necessary part of routine agricultural activity.

This loophole in the legislation could spell disaster for threatened species that rely on bush rock on private property to survive. For example, the Grassland Earless Dragon is thought to have gone extinct in Victoria as a result of habitat loss, including the removal of critical surface rock habitat from across its former range.

The ConversationIt would be a real shame to lose more threatened species to poorly planned and completely avoidable agricultural practices – especially when so many progressive landholders are actively trying to restore and improve biodiversity on the land.

Damian R. Michael, Senior Research Officer, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

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

Keeping warming below 1.5℃ is possible – but we can’t rely on removing carbon from the atmosphere

Kate Dooley, University of Melbourne

This week international leaders are meeting in Marrakech to thrash out how to achieve the Paris climate agreement, which came into force on Friday. The Marrakech meeting is the 22nd Congress of Parties (or COP22) to the United Nation’s climate convention. One of the key goals of the agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2℃, and aim to limit warming to 1.5℃.

With global greenhouse gas emissions still rising, this is a daunting task. Numerous models, including recent research, suggest we will not be able to achieve this without removing large amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere later this century (known as “negative emissions”).

But scientists are becoming increasingly sceptical of the concept, as it may create more problems than it solves, or fail to deliver. Instead, we need to ramp up action before 2020, before even the earliest targets of the Paris Agreement.

Going negative

Some models suggest that up to 1 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide needs to be removed from the atmosphere to meet the 1.5℃ goal.

This idea is increasingly being called out as a risky and “highly speculative” strategy to limit warming to 1.5℃, as it puts food security and biodiversity at risk, and may not even be possible to deliver. The Convention on Biodiversity has also now weighed in on the issue, declaring that carbon removal techniques are highly uncertain.

A recent report from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), summarised here, argues that the scale of negative emissions assumed by many climate models is improbably high.

The key components of negative emissions are reducing deforestation, planting trees, and an untested technology called “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” or BECCS. The involves burning plant matter to produce energy, capturing the waste CO₂, and then storing it underground. The result is less CO₂ in the atmosphere.

But there are several problems with these strategies. For one, the scale of land required for the expected level of negative emissions suggests serious social and ecological risks, since land plays a crucial role in food security, livelihoods and biodiversity conversation.

Indeed, the scale of bioenergy supply in many cases is equivalent to the current global harvest of all biomass – for food, feed, and fibre – assuming a doubling of human harvest of biomass by 2050.

The SEI paper argues that the risks and uncertainties associated with negative emissions could lock us into much higher levels of warming than intended, substantially undermining society’s overall mitigation efforts.

Better ways to remove carbon

So does all of this mean the 1.5℃ goal is out of reach? Some may think so.

However, the SEI analysis finds that if emissions were cut sufficiently quickly and ambitiously, we wouldn’t need to rely so much on negative emissions. We could also choose negative emissions methods with lower impacts on biodiversity, resource demands, and livelihoods.

The SEI analysis optimistically suggests that a maximum of 370 billion to 480 billion tonnes of CO₂ could be removed without exceeding biophysical, technological and social constraints. This would be done through protecting forests and allowing degraded forests to regenerate, along with some reforestation.

Even that would be extremely challenging to achieve, but done right, for example through community forestry and agro-ecological farming,, climate mitigation and sustainable development could go together.

In fact, securing land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities who protect and preserve the carbon stocks in forests is one of the most cost-effective forms of climate mitigation we have, with obvious social co-benefits.

Scaling up

The real threat of negative emissions is the potential to delay emissions reduction into the future. Many modelled pathways for 1.5℃ that include substantial negative emissions suggest that emissions do not begin to decline until the late 2020s.

But limiting negative emissions to lower levels would require immediate global mitigation on a scale greatly exceeding that which has so far been pledged by nations under the Paris Agreement.

We cannot wait until 2020 to speed up global action on climate change – less action now will mean more work later.

Key for strengthening pre-2020 action in Marrakech will be a facilitative dialogue on enhancing ambition and support and a high level ministerial meeting on increased ambition of 2020 commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.

Many countries, including Australia, still have completely inadequate targets for 2020, making arguments about whether they are on track to meet them or not moot.

The Moroccan government has dubbed Marrakech the “action COP”. Action here must focus on the urgent need for global emissions to begin declining before 2020, and on the finance needed to deliver it. This includes scaling up the rollout of renewable energy, halting and reversing the loss of the world’s forests, and tackling rich world consumption patterns to ensure equitable mitigation pathways.

Limiting global warming to 1.5℃ is not only possible, it is the only chance of survival for the most vulnerable communities around the world, who are increasingly exposed to rising sea levels, drought and food shortages.

As Erik Solheim, head of the UN Environment Program (UNEP), and Jacqueline McGlade, UNEP’s chief scientist, wrote in a recent report, those most vulnerable “take little comfort from agreements to adopt mitigation measures and finance adaptation in the future. They need action today”.

The Conversation

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

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

Article: The Black Sea and Carbon Removal

The link below is to an article that looks at how phytoplankton removes carbon in the Black Sea, Russia.

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