China-backed Sumatran dam threatens the rarest ape in the world


Bill Laurance, James Cook University

The plan to build a massive hydropower dam in Sumatra as part of China’s immense Belt and Road Initiative threatens the habitat of the rarest ape in the world, which has only 800 remaining members.

This is merely the beginning of an avalanche of environmental crises and broader social and economic risks that will be provoked by the BRI scheme.




Read more:
How we discovered a new species of orangutan in northern Sumatra


The orangutan’s story began in November 2017, when scientists made a stunning announcement: they had discovered a seventh species of Great Ape, called the Tapanuli Orangutan, in a remote corner of Sumatra, Indonesia.

In an article published in Current Biology today, my colleagues and I show that this ape is perilously close to extinction – and that a Chinese-sponsored megaproject could be the final nail in its coffin.

Forest clearing for the Chinese-funded development has already begun.
Sumatran Orangutan Society

Ambitious but ‘nightmarishly complicated’

The BRI is an ambitious but nightmarishly complicated venture, and far less organised than many believe. The hundreds of road, port, rail, and energy projects will ultimately span some 70 nations across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region. It will link those nations economically and often geopolitically to China, while catalysing sweeping expansion of land-use and extractive industries, and will have myriad knock-on effects.

Up to 2015, the hundreds of BRI projects were reviewed by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, which is directly under China’s State Council. Many observers have assumed that the NDRC will help coordinate the projects, but the only real leverage they have is over projects funded by the big Chinese policy banks – the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China – which they directly control.

China’s Belt & Road Initiative will sweep across some 70 nations in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region.
Mercator Institute for China Studies

Most big projects – many of which are cross-national – will have a mix of funding from various sources and nations, meaning that no single entity will be in charge or ultimately responsible. An informed colleague in China describes this model as “anarchy”.

Tapanuli Orangutan

The dangerous potential of the BRI becomes apparent when one examines the Tapanuli Orangutan. With fewer than 800 individuals, it is one of the rarest animals on Earth. It survives in just a speck of rainforest, less than a tenth the size of Sydney, that is being eroded by illegal deforestation, logging, and poaching.

All of these threats propagate around roads. When a new road appears, the ape usually disappears, along with many other rare species sharing its habitat, such as Hornbills and the endangered Sumatran Tiger.

A Tapanuli Orangutan.
Maxime Aliaga

The most imminent threat to the ape is a US$1.6 billion hydropower project that Sinohydro (China’s state-owned hydroelectric corporation) intends to build with funding from the Bank of China and other Chinese financiers. If the project proceeds as planned, it will flood the heart of the ape’s habitat and crisscross the remainder with many new roads and powerline clearings.

It’s a recipe for ecological Armageddon for one of our closest living relatives. Other major lenders such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank aren’t touching the project, but that isn’t slowing down China’s developers.

What environmental safeguards?

China has produced a small flood of documents describing sustainable lending principles for its banks and broad environmental and social safeguards for the BRI, but I believe many of these documents are mere paper tigers or “greenwashing” designed to quell anxieties.

According to insiders, a heated debate in Beijing right now revolves around eco-safeguards for the BRI. Big corporations (with international ambitions and assets that overseas courts can confiscate) want clear guidelines to minimise their liability. Smaller companies, of which there are many, want the weakest standards possible.

The argument isn’t settled yet, but it’s clear that the Chinese government doesn’t want to exclude its thousands of smaller companies from the potential BRI riches. Most likely, it will do what it has in the past: issue lofty guidelines that a few Chinese companies will attempt to abide by, but that most will ignore.

The Greater Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra is the last place on Earth where Orangutans, Tigers, Elephants and Rhinos still persist together.

Stacked deck

There are three alarming realities about China, of special relevance to the BRI.

First, China’s explosive economic growth has arisen from giving its overseas corporations and financiers enormous freedom. Opportunism, graft and corruption are embedded, and they are unlikely to yield economically, socially or environmentally equitable development for their host nations. I detailed many of these specifics in an article published by Yale University last year.

Second, China is experiencing a perfect storm of trends that ensures the harsher realities of the BRI are not publicly aired or even understood in China. China has a notoriously closed domestic media – ranked near the bottom in press freedom globally – that is intolerant of government criticism.

Beyond this, the BRI is the signature enterprise of President Xi Jinping, who has become the de-facto ruler of China for life. Thanks to President Xi, the BRI is now formally enshrined in the constitution of China’s Communist Party, making it a crime for any Chinese national to criticise the program. This has had an obvious chilling effect on public discourse. Indeed, I have had Chinese colleagues withdraw as coauthors of scientific papers that were even mildly critical of the BRI.

President Xi Jinpeng at the 19th People’s Congress, where the BRI was formally inscribed into China’s national constitution.
Foreign Policy Journal

Third, China is becoming increasingly heavy-handed internationally, willing to overtly bully or covertly pull strings to achieve its objectives. Professor Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University has warned that Australia has become a target for Chinese attempts to stifle criticism.

Remember the ape

It is time for a clarion call for greater caution. While led by China, the BRI will also involve large financial commitments from more than 60 nations that are parties to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, including Australia and many other Western nations.




Read more:
China’s growing footprint on the globe threatens to trample the natural world


The ConversationWe all have a giant stake in the Belt and Road Initiative. It will bring sizeable economic gains for some, but in nearly 40 years of working internationally, I have never seen a program that raises more red flags.

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

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

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China’s growing footprint on the globe threatens to trample the natural world



File 20171130 12035 1gkyop1.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A Chinese road-building corporation felling rainforest in the Congo Basin.
Bill Laurance, Author provided

Bill Laurance, James Cook University

Many observers of China’s escalating global program of foreign investment and infrastructure development are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. In an ideal world, China’s unbridled ambitions will improve economic growth, food security and social development in many poor nations, as well as enriching itself.

Such hopes are certainly timely, given the isolationism of the US Trump
administration, which has created an international leadership vacuum that China is eager to fill.

But a close look reveals that China’s international agenda is far more exploitative than many realise, especially for the global environment. And the Chinese leadership’s claims to be embracing “green development” are in many cases more propaganda than fact.


Read more: China will need to be more transparent to achieve its development goals


To help steer through the maze, I provide here a snapshot of China’s present environmental impacts. Are China’s assertions reasoned and defensible, or something else altogether?

Predatory force?

For a start, China is overwhelmingly the world’s biggest consumer of illegally poached wildlife and wildlife products. From rhino horn, to pangolins, to shark fins, to a menagerie of wild bird species, Chinese consumption drives much of the global trade in wildlife exploitation and smuggling.

Over the past 15 years, China’s rapacious appetite for ivory has largely driven a global collapse of elephant populations. In response to growing international criticism, China promised to shut down its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017.

The author examining a Forest Elephant gunned down by ivory poachers in central Africa.
Mahmoud Mahmoud

But even before China’s ban has taken full force, a black market for ivory is developing in neighbouring Laos. There, Chinese entrepreneurs are churning out great quantities of carved ivory products, specifically designed for Chinese tastes and openly sold to Chinese visitors.

China is also the world’s biggest importer of illegal timber, a trade that imperils forests while defrauding developing nations of billions of dollars each year in timber royalties.

China claims to be working to reduce its illegal timber imports, but its efforts are half-hearted at best, judging by the amount of illegal timber still flowing across its border with Myanmar.

A queue of logging trucks in Southeast Asia.
Jeff Vincent

Infrastructure tsunami

More damaging still are China’s plans for infrastructure expansion that will irreparably degrade much of the natural world.

China’s One Belt One Road initiative alone will carve massive arrays of new roads, railroads, ports, and extractive industries such as mining, logging, and oil and gas projects into at least 70 nations across Asia, Europe, and Africa.

A partial representation of China’s One Belt One Road scheme, circa 2015.
Mercator Institute for China Studies

Chinese President Xi Jinping promises that the Belt and Road initiative will be “green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable”, but such a claim is profoundly divorced from reality.

As my colleagues and I recently argued in Science and Current Biology, the modern infrastructure tsunami that is largely being driven by China will open a Pandora’s box of environmental crises, including large-scale deforestation, habitat fragmentation, wildlife poaching, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

China’s pursuit of natural resources is also escalating across Latin America. In the Amazon, for example, big mining projects – many of which are feeding Chinese industries – don’t just cause serious local degradation, but also promote widespread deforestation from the networks of roads bulldozed into remote areas to access the mines.

Why roads are so dangerous for nature.

Overall, China is the most aggressive consumer of minerals on the planet, and the biggest driver of tropical deforestation.

Beyond this, China is pushing to build a 5,000km railroad across South America, to make it cheaper for China to import timber, minerals, soy and other natural resources from ports along South America’s Pacific coast. If it proceeds, the number of critical ecosystems that would be impacted by this project is staggering.

A World Bank study of more than 3,000 overseas projects funded or operated by China revealed how it often treats poor nations as “pollution havens” – transferring its own environmental degradation to developing nations that are desperate for foreign investment.

Finally, much has been made of the fact that China is beginning to temper its appetite for domestic fossil-fuelled energy. It is now a leading investor in solar and wind energy, and recently delayed construction of more than 150 coal-fired electricity plants in China.

These are unquestionably pluses, but they need to be seen in their broad context. In terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, China has exploded past every other nation. It now produces more than twice the carbon emissions of the United States, the second-biggest polluter, following the greatest building spree of coal, nuclear, and large-scale hydro projects in human history.

Despite its new post-Trump role as the world’s de facto climate leader, China’s overall agenda could scarcely be described as green.

A tiger relaxes along a grassy bank.
Matt Gibson/Shutterstock

Iceberg ahead

Some would say it’s unfair to criticise China like this. They would argue that China is merely following a well-trodden path of exploitative development previously forged by other nations and colonial powers.

But China is not the same as any other nation. The astounding growth and size of its economy, its dangerously single-minded vision for exploiting natural resources and land internationally, its intolerance of internal and external criticism, and its increasingly closed media and official myopia all combine to make it unique.


Read more: Developing countries can prosper without increasing emissions


President Xi admits that many Chinese corporations, investors and lenders operating overseas have often acted aggressively and even illegally overseas. But he says his government is powerless to do much about it. The most notable government response to date is a series of “green papers” containing guidelines that sound good in theory but are almost universally ignored by Chinese interests.

Indigenous forest people in the Congo Basin become increasingly poor and marginalised as foreign miners, loggers and poachers invade their lands.
Mahmoud Mahmoud

Are Xi’s assertions of powerlessness believable? He increasingly rules China with an iron hand. Is it really impossible for China to guide and control its overseas industries, or are they simply so profitable that the government doesn’t want to?

The ConversationOf course, China’s huge international ambitions will have some positive effects, and could even be economically transformative for certain nations. But many other elements will benefit China while profoundly damaging our planet.

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

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

Year-on-year bleaching threatens Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage status


Terry Hughes, James Cook University; Barry Hart, Monash University, and Karen Hussey, The University of Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef has already been badly damaged by global warming during three extreme heatwaves, in 1998, 2002 and 2016. A new bleaching event is under way now. The Conversation

As shown in a study published in Nature today, climate change is not some distant future threat. It has already degraded large tracts of the Great Barrier Reef over the past two decades.

The extreme marine heatwave in 2016 killed two-thirds of the corals along a 700km stretch of the northern Great Barrier Reef, from Port Douglas to Papua New Guinea. It was a game-changer for the reef and for how we manage it.

Our study shows that we cannot climate-proof coral reefs by improving water quality or reducing fishing pressure. Reefs in clear water were damaged as much as muddy ones, and the hot water didn’t stop at the boundaries of no-fishing zones. There is nowhere to hide from global warming. The process of replacement of dead corals in the northern third of the reef will take at least 10-15 years for the fastest-growing species.

The Great Barrier Reef is internationally recognised as a World Heritage Area. In 2015 UNESCO, the world body with oversight of World Heritage Areas, considered listing the reef as a site “in danger” in light of declines in its health.

Australia’s response falling short

In response to concerns from UNESCO, Australia devised a plan, called the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan. Its ultimate goal is to improve the “Outstanding Universal Value” of the reef: the attributes of the Great Barrier Reef that led to its inscription as a World Heritage Area in 1981.

We have written an independent analysis, delivered to UNESCO, which concludes that to date the implementation of the plan is far too slow and has not been adequately funded to prevent further degradation and loss of the reef’s values. A major shortcoming of the plan is that it virtually ignores the greatest current impact on the Great Barrier Reef: human-caused climate change.

The unprecedented loss of corals in 2016 has substantially diminished the condition of the World Heritage Area, reducing its biodiversity and aesthetic values. Key ecological processes are under threat, such as providing habitat, calcification (the formation of corals’ reef-building stony skeletons) and predation (creatures eating and being eaten by corals). Global warming means that Australia’s aim of ensuring the Great Barrier Reef’s values improve every decade between now and 2050 is no longer attainable for at least the next two decades.

What needs to change

Our report makes 27 recommendations for getting the Reef 2050 Plan back on track. The following are critical:

  • Address climate change and reduce emissions, both nationally and globally. The current lack of action on climate is a major policy failure for the Great Barrier Reef. Local action on water quality (the focus of the Reef 2050 Plan) does not prevent bleaching, or “buy time” for future action on emissions. Importantly, though, it does contribute to the recovery of coral reefs after major bleaching.

  • Reduce run-off of sediment, nutrients and pollutants from our towns and farms. To date the progress towards achieving the water quality targets and uptake of best management practice by farmers is very poor. Improving water quality can help recovery of corals, even if it doesn’t prevent mortality during extreme heatwaves.

  • Provide adequate funding for reaching net zero carbon emissions, for achieving the Reef 2050 Plan targets for improved water quality, and limiting other direct pressures on the reef.

At this stage, we do not recommend that the reef be listed as “in danger”. But if we see more die-backs of corals in the next few years, little if any action on emissions and inadequate progress on water quality, then an “in danger” listing in 2020, when UNESCO will reconsider the Great Barrier Reef’s status, seems inevitable.


This article was co-authored by Diane Tarte, co-director of Marine Ecosystem Policy Advisors Pty Ltd. She was a co-author of the independent report to UNESCO on the Great Barrier Reef.

Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University, James Cook University; Barry Hart, Emeritus Professor Water Science, Monash University, and Karen Hussey, Deputy Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

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

Saving Nemo: how climate change threatens anemonefish and their homes


Jean-Paul Hobbs, Curtin University and Ashley J Frisch, James Cook University

Anemonefish, or clownfish, were made famous by the 2003 Disney-Pixar film Finding Nemo, and are about to play a starring role in the sequel, Finding Dory. They are well known for their special relationship with anemones, which provide a safe place to call home.

But anemonefish face a number of threats. Some researchers have warned of an increase in the wild-caught anemonefish trade, as happened following Finding Nemo.

Anemones, on which anemonefish depend, are threatened by warming seas in a similar way to corals. In fact anemones were affected by the recent coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, which recent updates show has left a third of coral colonies dead or dying in the north and central parts of the reef.

So will Nemo be left homeless?

A healthy (left) and bleached (right) bubble-tip anemone (Entacmaea quadricolor) on the Great Barrier Reef.
Ashley Frisch

Nemo and his 27 cousins

There are 28 species of anemonefish. Although some people call this group “clownfish”, technically this name is only used for one species, Amphiprion percula. “Nemo” (A. ocellaris) looks similar, but is actually known as the “false clownfish”.

Anemonefish are famous for their special relationship with anemones. Although they can survive in aquariums without anemones, in nature they rely on anemones for protection from predators.

The pink anemonefish (Amphiprion perideraion) in a bleached anemone (Heteractis magnifica) at Christmas Island.
JP Hobbs.

In return for providing a safe home, the resident anemonefish will provide nutrients and defend the anemone from predators such as butterflyfish. Both the number and size of anemonefish is linked to the size and number of anemones – and vice versa. Therefore, any decrease in one partner affects the other.

The collection of anemones and anemonefish for the aquarium trade has to be managed properly to ensure the future of anemonefishes. Anemonefish can be easily bred in captivity and this provides a reliable source for aquarium enthusiasts without impacting wild populations.

Cinnamon anemonefish (Amphiprion melanopus) in a bleached anemone (Entacmaea quadricolor) on the Great Barrier Reef.
Ashley Frisch

Ten species of anemones are inhabited by anemonefish. The highest diversity of anemonefish occurs in Indonesia, where anemonefish species outnumber anemones. As a result, different species of anemonefish have learnt to share the same anemone.

In most other locations, anemonefish aggressively prevent other species from entering their anemone. Anemonefish species differ in the number of anemone species they associate with.

Clark’s anemonefish (Amphiprion clarkii) in a bleached anemone (Cryptodendrum adhaesivum) at Christmas Island.
JP Hobbs.

Clark’s anemonefish (A. clarkii) can live in all ten anemone species and is widely distributed throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In contrast, McCulloch’s anemonefish (A. mccullochi) inhabits only one species of anemone and occurs only on reefs around Lord Howe Island.

After hatching, anemonefish larvae use their keen sense of smell to find their preferred anemone species and avoid unhealthy (bleached) anemones.

Anemones in hot water

Anemones are closely related to corals and get their colour from microscopic algae (zooxanthellae) that live symbiotically within the tissue of the anemone. Like corals, anemones expel their algae and turn white when they become stressed.

This process – termed “bleaching” – is usually in response to periods of elevated seawater temperatures. All ten species of anemones are susceptible to bleaching, which can result in a decrease in the size and number of anemonefishes and reduced reproduction.

McCulloch’s anemonefish (Amphiprion mccullochi) in a bleached anemone (Entacmaea quadricolor) at Lord Howe Island.
Justin Gilligan.

If seawater temperatures remain high for too long, then bleached anemones will die. In 1998, a prolonged period of elevated water temperatures in Japan resulted in mass mortality of bleached anemones and local extinction of anemonefish.

In March 2016, the Great Barrier Reef experienced a severe bleaching event due to elevated water temperatures associated with a strong El Niño event. There was mass bleaching of both corals and anemones.

Marine biologist Jean-Paul Hobbs studying anemonefish (Amphiprion mccullochi) and their host anemones (Entacmaea quadricolor) at Lord Howe Island.
Justin Gilligan.

In April 2016, elevated water temperatures also caused mass bleaching of corals and anemones off north-west Australia, including Christmas Island. Bleached anemones have also recently been reported elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and in the Red Sea.

The future of the bleached anemones and their resident anemonefish will depend on how quickly the water temperature returns to normal. If the temperature decreases swiftly, bleached anemones can regain their colour (reabsorb zooxanthellae) and survive.

However, the frequency and intensity of bleaching events are predicted to increase as the climate changes. Consequently, there are serious concerns about the ability of anemones and anemonefish to cope with rising water temperatures.

Reducing global greenhouse gas emissions will limit subsequent bleaching events and help ensure the future of Nemo and its relatives.

The Conversation

Jean-Paul Hobbs, Research Fellow, Department of Environment and Agriculture, Curtin University and Ashley J Frisch, Postdoctoral Fellow in Marine Ecology, James Cook University

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