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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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.

World greenhouse gas levels made unprecedented leap in 2016



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Human activity, along with a strong El Nino, drove 2016 greenhouse gas levels to new heights.
AAP Image/Dave Hunt

Paul Fraser, CSIRO; Paul Krummel, CSIRO, and Zoe Loh, CSIRO

Global average carbon dioxide concentrations rose by 0.8% during 2016, the largest annual increase ever observed. According to figures released overnight by the World Meteorological Organisation, atmospheric CO₂ concentrations reached 403.3 parts per million. This is the highest level for at least 3 million years, having climbed by 3.3 ppm relative to the 2015 average.

The unprecedented rise is due to carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and the strong 2015-16 El Niño event, which reduced the capacity of forests, grasslands and oceans to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Greenhouse gas levels are unprecedented in modern times.
WMO

The figures appear in the WMO’s annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. This is the authoritative source for tracking trends in greenhouse gases that, together with temperature-induced increases in atmospheric water vapour, are the major drivers of current climate change.


Read more: Southern hemisphere joins north in breaching carbon dioxide milestone


Laboratories around the world, including at CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia, measure atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at more than 120 locations. The gases include carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, as well as synthetic gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

At Cape Grim in Tasmania, we observed a corresponding increase during 2016 of 3.2 ppm, also the highest ever observed.

For 2017 so far, Cape Grim has recorded a smaller increase of 1.9 ppm. This possibly reflects a reduced impact of El Niño on atmospheric carbon dioxide growth rates this year.

Long-term record of background carbon dioxide from Cape Grim, located at the northwest tip of Tasmania.
CSIRO/BoM

For roughly 800,000 years before industrialisation began (in around the year 1750), carbon dioxide levels remained below 280 parts per million, as measured by air trapped in Antarctic ice. Geological records suggest that the last time atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide were similar to current levels was 3-5 million years ago. At that time, the climate was 2-3℃ warmer than today’s average, and sea levels were 10 to 20 metres higher than current levels.

Human-driven change

The extraordinarily rapid accumulation of CO₂ in the atmosphere over the past 150 years is overwhelmingly and unequivocally due to human activity.

Methane is the second-most-important long-lived greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, with 40% coming from natural sources such as wetlands and termites and the remaining 60% from human activities including agriculture, fossil fuel use, landfills and biomass burning.

In 2016, global atmospheric methane also hit record levels, reaching 1,853 parts per billion, an increase of 9 ppb or 0.5% above 2015 levels. At Cape Grim, methane levels climbed by 6 ppb in 2016, or 0.3% above 2015 levels.

Nitrous oxide is the third-most-important greenhouse gas, of which [around 60% comes from natural sources such as oceans and soils], and 40% from fertilisers, industrial processes and biomass burning.

In 2016, global atmospheric nitrous oxide hit a record 328.9 ppb, having climbed by 0.8 ppb (0.2%) above 2015 levels. At Cape Grim, we observed the same annual increase of 0.8 ppb.


Read more: The three-minute story of 800,000 years of climate change with a sting in the tail


If we represent the climate change impact of all greenhouse gases in terms of the equivalent amount of CO₂, then this “CO₂-e” concentration in the atmosphere in 2016 would be 489 ppm. This is fast approaching the symbolic milestone of 500 ppm.

These record greenhouse gas levels are consistent with the observed rise in global average temperatures, which also hit record levels in 2016.

The only way to reduce the impact is to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol and the subsequent Paris Agreement are important first steps in a long and challenging process to reduce such emissions. Their immediate success and ultimate strengthening will be crucial in keeping our future climate in check.


The ConversationThe authors thank Dr David Etheridge for his advice on the use of proxy measurements to infer carbon dioxide levels in past atmospheres.

Paul Fraser, Honorary Fellow, CSIRO; Paul Krummel, Research Group Leader, CSIRO, and Zoe Loh, Research Scientist, CSIRO

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

Canada: The Great Trail is Now Open


The link below is to an article reporting on the opening of the world’s longest bushwalking/hiking trail – The Great Trail in Canada.

For more visit:
http://inhabitat.com/the-worlds-longest-hiking-trail-is-officially-open/