Mountain ash has a regal presence: the tallest flowering plant in the world



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CSIRO via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Gregory Moore, University of Melbourne

Welcome to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian. Read more about the series here or get in touch to pitch a plant at batb@theconversation.edu.au.


The Indigenous people of Victoria and Tasmania have long known of the giant trees to be found in some of the wetter and cooler forests of these parts of Australia. The first Europeans were amazed to see trees of such stature growing in what they regarded as a dry and hostile environment.

The trees are straight and tall – almost incredibly tall – and many have massive girths. They are in every sense living giants.

Today we know the species by various common names, such as mountain ash, swamp gum, stringy gum or even giant gum, in different parts of Australia. Perhaps this is a situation where the proper botanical name, which many people find difficult and confusing, says it all. This monarch of eucalypts is officially called Eucalyptus regnans; regnans being Latin for ruling or reigning. Its massive stature gave rise to the name.

How does it grow?

Mountain ash lack many of the typical eucalypt adaptations to environmental stresses like fire, drought and poor soils. They compensate by growing very fast under the right conditions; eventually over-topping all the other species present.

They have huge and often deep root systems to supply adequate amounts of water. To grow successfully they need plenty of water and sunlight – so they are not really very hardy – but in the right environment they are unbeatable.

They always grow tall and so are not for your smaller suburban backyard, but there are many in backyards in the Dandenongs, in peri-urban sites to the east of Melbourne and in towns in Gippsland and the Otways.

Their mature leaves are about 3mm wide and can be as long as 150mm, while their flowers are white to cream in colour and 8mm across. The buds and flowers grow in clusters, but like the flowers of many eucalypts they often go unnoticed, especially on the taller trees. The fruits or gumnuts are again in clusters, about 10mm across and, somewhat surprisingly for such a large tree, contain hundreds of tiny seeds.

The bark is rough and fibrous at the base and for up to about 10m from the ground, but then is a beautiful smooth, mottled cream and grey with long ribbons of dead bark hanging from the canopy. These ribbons burn in bushfires and can carry fire for many kilometres ahead of a fire.




Read more:
Curious Kids: Where did trees come from?


A forest giant

We will never know if a Eucalyptus regnans was the tallest living thing on Earth; they are certainly the largest flowering plants in the world. Many of the biggest were felled in the mid to late 1800s before they could be properly measured.

There have been, and continue to be, a number of rivals for the tallest mountain ash; of course there have been the usual rivalries between states. Tasmania currently holds the record, but there are several tall specimens in Victoria that may take the crown in future.

Some of these trees were so large that the stumps could neither be transported from the forest, nor processed in the timber mills of the day. These huge logs can still be seen rotting on the forest floor more than a century later.

A stump of a Eucalyptus regnans in Tasmania’s Styx valley.
TTaylor/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

These trees were so large, an old forester told me in the early 1970s, that when they felled them by hand with cross-cut saws, air could be heard being sucked into the cuts – the so-called sighing of the trees as they died.

We do know, however, that specimens of Eucalyptus regnans regularly exceed 85 metres in height and that one tree was measured at 132m tall. Often they were measured after they had been felled and the uppermost branches (and sometimes the stump) were not included in the measurement. Today the tallest specimens are just under 100m tall and the biggest tree is 10.74m in diameter and 33.75m in girth (measured at 1.4m above the ground).

They are second only to the coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, in height.

For such mighty trees, it often comes as a surprise that they are not as old as many people think. While the coast redwoods can exceed 2,000 years of age, mature Eucalyptus regnans tree are commonly about 300 years old, but may reach about twice that age if they are growing in the right place to miss bushfires.




Read more:
Sandpaper figs make food, fire, medicine and a cosy home for wasps


Vulnerable to fire

Mountain ash are easily killed by bushfires. Although they grow in the cooler and wetter parts of southeastern Australia where fires are not so frequent, as time passes, a fire becomes inevitable. The fire kills the individual specimens, but at the same time rejuvenates and renews the forest. The mighty Eucalyptus regnans regenerates from the tiniest of seeds that are shed from the woody fruits that were present in the canopy at the time of the fire; seedlings often emerge about six months after a fire.

When fires burn through Eucalyptus regnans-dominated wet forests most of the trees die, but those that don’t can be fire-scarred – often on one side. Over time these trees decay and then hollow out. Given their massive girths, they can develop huge cavities at the base and a hollow trunk leading upwards like chimney.

As with other similar large-girthed eucalypts, Indigenous people used these trees as shelters. They weren’t the only ones: there are records of early settlers and timber cutters using these trees as their homes for families of seven or more people.

Hollowed-out mountain ash were used as shelters by settler families.
State Library of Victoria

The timber from Eucalyptus regnans reminded some people of European ash timber and hence the name mountain ash, while others thought it had properties as good as oak and so the name Tasmanian or Tassie oak was used for the timber. The timber is still highly valued today and Eucalyptus regnans is a common plantation species in Australia and overseas.

The ConversationIn Victoria and Tasmania, Eucalyptus regnans forests are to be found within an hour’s drive of major cities, but in Melbourne, you can catch a glimpse of these magnificent trees and the forest over which they reign by visiting the atrium of the Melbourne Museum.

Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, University of Melbourne

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

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One-third of the world’s nature reserves are under threat from humans



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People transporting gasoline by boat in Indonesia’s Kayan Mentarang National Park.
ESCapade/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

James Watson, The University of Queensland; James Allan, The University of Queensland; Kendall Jones, The University of Queensland; Pablo Negret, The University of Queensland; Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland, and Sean Maxwell, The University of Queensland

In the 146 years since Yellowstone National Park in the northwestern
United States became the world’s first protected area, nations around the world have created more than 200,000 terrestrial nature reserves. Together they cover more than 20 million km², or almost 15% of the planet’s land surface – an area bigger than South America.

Governments establish protected areas so that plants and animals can live without human pressures that might otherwise drive them towards extinction. These are special places, gifts to future generations and all non-human life on the planet.

But in a study published today in Science, we show that roughly one-third of the global protected area estate (a staggering 6 million km²) is under intense human pressure. Roads, mines, industrial logging, farms, townships and cities all threaten these supposedly protected places.

It is well established that these types of human activities are causing the decline and extinction of species throughout the world. But our new research shows how widespread these activities are within areas that are designated to protect nature.




Read more:
The global road-building explosion is shattering nature


We assessed the extent and intensity of human pressure inside the global protected area estate. Our measure of human pressure was based on the “human footprint” – a measure that combines data on built environments, intensive agriculture, pasturelands, human population density, night-time lights, roads, railways, and navigable waterways.

Astoundingly, almost three-quarters of countries have at least 50% of their protected land under intense human pressure – that is, modified by mining, roads, townships, logging or agriculture. The problem is most acute in western Europe and southern Asia. Only 42% of protected land was found to be free of measurable human pressure.

Satellite images reveal the human pressure within many national parks. A: Kamianets-Podilskyi, a city inside Podolskie Tovtry National Park, Ukraine; B: Major roads within Tanzania’s Mikumi National Park; C: Agriculture and buildings within Dadohaehaesang National Park, South Korea.
Google Earth, Author provided

A growing footprint

Across Earth, there is example after example of large-scale human infrastructure within the boundaries of protected areas. Major projects include railways through Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks in Kenya, which are home to the critically endangered eastern black rhinoceros and lions famous for their strange lack of manes. Plans to add a six-lane highway alongside the railway are well underway.

Construction of the standard gauge railway in Tsavo East and West National Parks, Kenya.
Tsavo Trust, Author provided

Many protected areas across the Americas, including Sierra Nevada De Santa Marta in Colombia and Parque Estadual Rio Negro Setor Sul in Brazil, are straining under the pressure of densely populated nearby towns and rampant tourism. In the US, both Yosemite and Yellowstone are also suffering from the increasingly sophisticated tourism infrastructure being built inside their borders.

In highly developed, megadiverse countries such as Australia, the story is bleak. A classic example is Barrow Island National Park in Western Australia, which is home to endangered mammals such as the spectacled hare-wallaby, burrowing bettong, golden bandicoot and black-flanked rock-wallaby, but which also houses major oil and gas projects.

While government-sanctioned, internationally funded developments like those in Tsavo and Barrow Island are all too common, protected areas also face impacts from illegal activities. Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra – a UNESCO world heritage site that is home to the critically endangered Sumatran tiger, orangutan and rhinoceros – is also now home to more than 100,000 people who have illegally settled and converted around 15% of the park area for coffee plantations.

Fulfilling the promise of protected areas

Protected areas underpin much of our efforts to conserve nature. Currently, 111 nations have reached the global standard 17% target for protected land outlined in the United Nations’ Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. But if we discount the supposedly protected land that is actually under intense human pressure, 74 of these 111 nations would fall short of the target. Moreover, the protection of some specific habitat types – such as mangroves and temperate forests – would decrease by 70% after discounting these highly pressured areas.

Governments around the world claim that their protected areas are set aside for nature, while at the same time approving huge developments inside their boundaries or failing to prevent illegal damage. This is likely a major reason why biodiversity continues to decline despite massive recent increases in the amount of protected land.




Read more:
Radical overhaul needed to halt Earth’s sixth great extinction event


Our results do not tell a happy story. But they do provide a timely chance to be honest about the true condition of the world’s protected areas. If we cannot relieve the pressure on these places, the fate of nature will become increasingly reliant on a mix of nondescript, largely untested conservation strategies that are subject to political whims and difficult to implement on large enough scales. We can’t afford to let them fail.

The ConversationBut we know that protected areas can work. When well-funded, well-managed and well-placed, they are extremely effective in halting the threats that cause species to die out. It is time for the global conservation community to stand up and hold governments to account so they take conservation seriously. This means conducting a full, frank and honest assessment of the true condition of our protected areas.

James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Kendall Jones, PhD candidate, Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Pablo Negret, PhD candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, The University of Queensland; Richard Fuller, Professor in Biodiversity and Conservation, The University of Queensland, and Sean Maxwell, PhD candidate, The University of Queensland

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

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.

As humans change the world, predators seize the chance to succeed



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A boobook enjoys its vantage point, courtesy of humans.
Simon Cherriman, Author provided

Bill Bateman, Curtin University and Trish Fleming, Murdoch University

If you have ever been to a nature reserve in Africa, you may have been lucky enough to see predators on a kill – maybe something spectacular like lions on a giraffe. The chances are you got to see that because the predators killed the prey right on the road, where you could get up close in your car or safari vehicle.

Lions gathered on a road in a South African National Park.
Bill Bateman

But what if this was not just luck? What if lions had greater hunting success along a road because their prey slip on the tarmac, stumble and fall, thus becoming a meal? The road – a human intrusion in a natural world – could be increasing the predators’ hunting success.

Road kill.

This intriguing idea led us to wonder if there were other examples in which human structures or environments might benefit predators – a group of animals that would otherwise appear to want as little to do with humans and their world as possible.




Read more:
You scratch my back… the beneficial (and not so beneficial) relationships between organisms


Ecosystems are dynamic, which means that new ones can arise when species occur in combinations and numbers that have not happened before. While we often (rightly) have a very negative view of our impact on the natural world, sometimes organisms can surprise us by taking advantage of what we do and creating a successful space for themselves in a human world.

Once we started looking, we found other examples of predators exploiting these niches. We found four ways, with much overlap, that predators take advantage of human habitats to improve their hunting success.

A world of opportunities.

First, certain animal species follow human settlements and can provide a completely new food source for predators. Rodents (rats and mice) and invasive birds (such as sparrows or starlings) exploit resources around towns. Pets and livestock are also commonly taken by predators such as bears, wolves, foxes and dingoes.

Lions have learned to use cowbells to locate livestock, and may have increased hunting success using gravel and tarmac roads to chase prey.
Trish Fleming

Second, potential prey species often gather around artificial resources, reducing commute times for predators and increasing their hunting success. For example, European kestrels ambush populations of bats and swifts as they leave their roosts in building ventilation. Two species of sea lion have learned to travel 100km up the Columbia River in the United States to hunt masses of migrating salmon that gather at fish ladders (structures that help fish go over or around dams or other barriers when migrating upriver to spawn) over the Bonneville Dam. Brown bears, meanwhile, hunt at fish weirs, trapping congregations of fish against these to prevent their escape.

Third, structures we build or things we do can make prey species more vulnerable. African wild dogs take down larger prey when they chase them into fences, and dingoes exploit roadkill along major highways. Horse-eye jack fish ambush prey around dock pilings that interrupt the synchronised escape behaviour of the fish schools. Peregrine falcons in New York city hunt at night as they have more success catching pigeons that are bedazzled by skyscraper lights. Lions have learned to use cowbells to locate livestock. Here in Australia wedge-tailed eagles follow harvesters on farms to catch animals flushed out by the machinery.

Finally, some predators also use resources that we provide as tools to aid their hunting. Some birds use human refuse to lure fish to their doom and many raptors use lampposts and aerials as perches, increasing their hunting success. Larger species such as cheetah and leopards similarly exploit our presence to hunt more successfully.

Osprey on aerial.

Only a few studies have tried to quantify the benefits of human environments for predators, identifying how they experience increased hunting success, reduced energy expenditure, or increased reproductive output. Such benefits can ultimately lead to increased population sizes, as has happened with the New York kestrel population and Chicago’s coyotes.

We predict that some predators are likely to become more abundant in our lives, which could have both positive and negative implications. For example, they are important biocontrol agents and do a great job of suppressing rodent populations. However, interactions with large predators can be dangerous for humans.

Letting humans do the hard work.

Predators can be vital for maintaining a balanced ecosystem. However, predator species can have a huge effect on their environment, even when there are only a few of them about. Predator species can easily become invasive animals, as we have seen with the introduction of cats into Australia or brown tree snakes onto the island of Guam.




Read more:
The Hunt: a natural history series that challenges us to side with the predators


These predators have had devastating consequences for whole ecosystems, and our actions may be unwittingly increasing their advantages over prey species, as has been made evident by ravens using human-built perches to predate heavily on desert tortoises. Similarly, animals using road underpasses are more vulnerable to introduced red foxes as the foxes – clever animals – soon learn to wait at the underpass exit for a meal delivery.

The ConversationOur presence and the way we alter our environment can therefore thwart conservation of threatened species, despite our best attempts. We need to carefully consider how we influence our environment, and be on the lookout for instances where predators are making use of novel niches to exploit prey species. Even the smallest changes we make can affect a whole landscape, and can make prey animals more vulnerable.

Bill Bateman, Senior Lecturer, Curtin University and Trish Fleming, Associate Professor, Murdoch University

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

2017: the year in extreme weather


Andrew King, University of Melbourne

Overall 2017 will be the warmest non-El Niño year on record globally, and over the past 12 months we have seen plenty of extreme weather, both here in Australia and across the world.

Here I’ll round up some of this year’s wild weather, and look forward to 2018 to see what’s around the corner.

Drought and flooding rains… again

It feels as if Australia has had all manner of extreme weather events in 2017.
We had severe heat at both the start and end of the year. Casting our minds back to last summer, both Sydney and Brisbane experienced their hottest summers on record, while parts of inland New South Wales and Queensland endured extended periods of very high temperatures.


Read more: We’ve learned a lot about heatwaves, but we’re still just warming up


More recently Australia had an unusually dry June and its warmest winter daytime temperatures on record. The record winter warmth was made substantially more likely by human-caused climate change.

The end of the year brought more than its fair share of extreme weather, especially in the southeast. Tasmania had by far its warmest November on record, beating the previous statewide record by more than half a degree. Melbourne had a topsy-turvy November with temperatures not hitting the 20℃ mark until the 9th, but a record 12 days above 30℃ after that.

November was rounded off by warnings for very severe weather that was forecast to strike Victoria. Melbourne missed the worst of the rains, although it still had a very wet weekend on December 2-3. Meanwhile, northern parts of the state were deluged, with many places recording two or three times the December average rainfall in just a couple of days.

Hurricane after hurricane after hurricane…

Elsewhere in the world there was plenty more headline-worthy weather.

The Atlantic Ocean had a particularly active hurricane season, with several intense systems. Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and its slow trajectory resulted in record-breaking rainfall over Houston and neighbouring areas.

Then Hurricanes Irma and Maria, both of which reached the strongest Category 5 status, brought severe weather to the Caribbean and southeastern United States just a couple of weeks apart. Island nations and territories in the region are still recovering from the devastation.

Around the same time, the Indian subcontinent experienced a particularly wet monsoon season. Flooding in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal killed more than 1,000 people and affected tens of millions more.

Other parts of the world experienced their own severe weather events. Whether it was summer heat in Europe or wildfires in California, 2017 dished up plenty of extremes.

In many cases, especially for heat extremes, we can rapidly identify a human influence and show that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of such events.

For other weather types, like the very active hurricane season and other extreme rain or drought events, it is harder (but not always impossible) to work out whether it bears the fingerprint of climate change.

What’s in store for 2018?

The main problem when trying to offer an outlook is that extreme weather is hard to predict, even on the scale of days or weeks in advance, let alone months.

For Australia, with a weak La Niña in the Pacific, there are few clear indications of what the rest of the summer’s weather will bring. There is a suggestion that we can expect a slightly wetter than average start to the year in parts of the southeast, along with warmer than average conditions for Victoria and Tasmania. Beyond that it is anyone’s guess.


Read more: Not just heat: even our spring frosts can bear the fingerprint of climate change


The La Niña is also likely to mean that 2018 won’t be a record hot year for the globe. But it’s a safe bet that despite the La Niña, 2018 will still end up among the warmest years on record, alongside every other year this century. Rising global average temperatures, along with our understanding of the effect of greenhouse gas emissions, are one of our clearest lines of evidence for human-caused climate change.

The ConversationSo it’s hard to say much about what extreme weather we’ll experience in 2018, other than to say that there’s likely to be plenty more weather news to wrap up in a year’s time.

Andrew King, Climate Extremes Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

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

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



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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.