Africa’s Great Green Wall

Africa does not come to mind when one thinks of audacious public works projects. But the continent’s growing wealth and political stability, combined with the pressing challenges of climate change and environmental degradation, is driving its leaders to come together and concentrate their efforts into forging bold new solutions.

Among them is the Great Green Wall, an incredible idea to create a wall of vegetation across the width of the Sahara to stave off rapid desertification and improve agricultural output (which most Africans depend on for survival). It would be around 4,000 kilometers in total, making it the largest “living structure” in the world, three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef. Continue reading


My Thoughts on Bucking the Paris Agreement

For what it is worth, it seems to me that most opposition to the Paris Agreement is predicated on mere ignorance to its contents and a visceral, categorical rejection of anything multilateral or international in nature, regardless of the details and benefits. (And given the considerable support for it by a broad range of stakeholders – from national security figures to big corporations, including major energy companies – the usual argument that such policies are inherently anti-business, or favor only idealistic environmentalists, simply do not wash.) It is anti-globalism for anti-globalism’s sake.

If folks actually read the Agreement – which most people had never heard of or had forgotten about until recently – they would find that it is explicitly nonbinding and hands-off with regards to how nations can go about mitigating climate change. In fact, it stipulates “nationally determined contributions” whereby every nation individually sets their own goals and how to reach them, whether through the free market, government programs, etc. Unlike its predecessors, the Paris Agreement furthermore places emphasis on “bottom up” solutions that favor working with private sector and civil society groups, something that opponents ostensibly favor. Ironically, these provisions were included in part to win over skeptics like the U.S. who criticized the binding nature of prior agreements such as the Kyoto Protocols.

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See the World’s Fishing Fleets in Near Real-Time

Fishing is an ancient practice dating back to at least 40,000 years ago. But like so many other age-old human practices, in the 21st century it has become an industrialized, globalized industry worth billions: on any given day across the world, tens of thousands of fishing boats of every size haul in hundreds of thousands of tons of fish. Close to half a billion people make a living, directly or indirectly, through fisheries and aquaculture (fish farms) in the developing world alone. Continue reading

Ten Percent of the Earth’s Wilderness Has Been Destroyed Since the 1990s

According to an Australian study published in Current Biology, Earth has lost 10 percent of its wilderness — around 1.2 million square miles, equivalent to twice the size of Alaska — in just the last two decades.  This leaves just 12 million square miles intact.


As the above maps show, losses were most severe in the Amazon, central Africa, and central Russia, with some areas — such as the Northwestern Congolian Lowland Forests, the Northern New Guinea Lowland Rain and Freshwater Swamp Forests of Southeast Asia — becoming almost totally wiped out. Continue reading

Deforestation is Where the Money is At

Brazil and Indonesia are heirs to some of the most biodiverse and extensive rainforests in the world. Yet they are also facing one of the fastest rates of deforestation, accounting for more than half of the world’s forest loss between 1990 and 2010.

As many can likely guess, this troubling trend is being driven largely be economic calculations: there is lots of money to be made from harvesting forest resources or making room for agricultural commodities. Continue reading

World Food Supply Threatened By Pollinator Decline

According to a report by the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), 75 percent of the world’s food crops — including apples, almonds, cacao, coffee, cotton, and mangoes — are in jeopardy as 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species (such as bees and butterflies) and 16 percent of vertebrate pollinators (such as bats and birds) face extinction.

The report draws from around 3,000 scientific papers, as well as local knowledge and information from over 60 locations worldwide, so the conclusion seems strongly built.

The culprits include intensive use of pesticides, the destruction and alteration of pollinators’ habitats, the introduction of invasive species and pests, climate change, and the forgoing of more sustainable traditional practices such as maintaining diverse gardens and landscapes to support pollinators. The report highlighted indigenous methods as being especially useful in curtailing these issues.

Solutions included promoting “sustainable agriculture” and diverse habitats; practicing crop rotation and other methods that minimize degradation of the environment; curtailing the use of pesticides in favor of alternative forms of pest control; and improving the management of bee colonies and other commercial pollinators.

Here is hoping governments and companies heed these warnings and recommendations, although their continued obstinance in the face of similar reports does not leave me too encouraged.

Source: NPR

Brazil’s Difficult Gamble With the Amazon

With most of the world’s largest rainforest located within its borders, Brazil is center stage in global debates and efforts regarding environmental preservation. As an in-depth and visually stimulating NPR photo essay shows Continue reading

The World’s Countries, Ranked By Tree Wealth

Friends and longtime readers are no doubt well away of my fondness for international rankings of all kinds. So it is nice to spice up the usual indexes of social, economic, or political performance and instead compare countries by the interesting new metric of tree wealth.

A team of researchers led by Thomas Crowther of Yale University recently published a study in Nature that looks at where the world’s over 3 trillion trees are located, and how this compares with a country’s geographic size, population, and more.

This might seem like an odd attribute to look at — perhaps suited for nothing more than an amusing fun fact — but as the Washington Post points out, trees are an often vital natural resource well worth studying and preserving.

[Having] lots of trees in a country provides a huge host of benefits — trees are both a natural resource and an asset to humans. They filter water, combat air pollution, sequester huge amounts of carbon that would otherwise reside in the atmosphere, and even, it appears, contribute to human psychological and health benefits. Indeed, large parts of the world population depend on forests for food.

And then, there’s just the emotional connection to nature. “I think people inherently value trees”, said Clara Rowe, a co-author of the study and a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, by e-mail. “In the days since our study was published, we’ve heard from individuals all over the world who are concerned about forest resources in their countries.”

Amid widespread environmental degradation and worsening global climate change, such scientific and public interest in the health and abundance of trees is well founded. Where they naturally exist, they are a barometer for the health, vitality, and sustainability of the local ecosystem. So those nations that have managed to preserve as many trees as possible have much to gain, as well as a lot to offer the world at large. Tree wealth is an apt description.

Starting with the most basic measurement, here are the countries with absolute most trees. (The researchers note that these estimates are more accurate with larger countries and less so with smaller ones.)

Total Tree Count

Source: Nature / Washington Post

You can find an interactive version in the Post article, which allows you to select an individual country to see its estimated number of trees.

As one can plainly see, the countries with the most trees in total are, unsurprisingly, the largest ones.

Based on this approach, the world’s overall tree leader is clearly Russia, with 642 billion total trees, followed by Canada with 318 billion and Brazil with 302 billion. The United States is actually fourth overall in this ranking, with 228 billion trees. Other countries with over 100 billion trees include China, with 140 billion and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with 101 billion. Indonesia comes in 7th, with 81 billion, and Australia 8th, with 77 billion.

Adjusting for territorial size, the next measurement looks at tree density, e.g., the number of trees within a square kilometer (roughly equal to a little over a third of a square mile). 2015-09-16 14-20-03

Source: Nature / Washington Post

The difference is dramatic: countries with lots of trees in absolute numbers rank low once you adjust for size. Naturally, this applies most strongly to drier countries, such as the desert nations of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, each with just 1 tree per square kilometer.

Relatively large countries like Finland, Sweden, Bolivia, and Indonesia still fare pretty well, as do smaller countries like Gabon, Laos, New Zealand, and Slovenia. As the researchers note in the study:

…in “northern latitudes, limited temperature and moisture lead to the establishment of stress-tolerant coniferous tree species that can reach the highest densities on Earth”. There is more total forest in the tropics, they found, but it isn’t as dense. So the type of forest that a country fosters has a big influence on this metric.

Next up is the number of trees per person. One could imagine that countries with large populations would have a lot less tree wealth to go around, especially with the subsequently high need for space, shelter, and farmland.

Trees Per Person

Source: Nature / Washington Post

[Once] again … vast northern countries like Russia and Canada are surprisingly “tree rich”, with thousands of trees per resident. There are a whopping 8,953 trees per person in Canada. But tropical countries of the southern hemisphere can also hold their own. Here, Bolivia (5,465 trees per person), Gabon (8,131), and the Central African Republic (5,152) also fared quite well.

By contrast, desert countries once again were quite low – Egypt was  estimated to have only about one tree per person. The metric is also highly sensitive to population size, meaning that India, with a population of 1.27 billion and a tree population of only about 35 billion, had just 28 trees per person.

Very high tree-to-person numbers were clustered in the northeast of South America: Suriname had 15,279 trees per person, Guyana 14,692, and French Guiana a stunning 20,226. Of course, these countries all have populations under a million people.

So we have gone over the number of trees as they relate to size, density, and population. But what about wealth? Intuitively, fast-growing poorer countries would seem likelier to strip their forests clean, given the greater need for readily available farmland, fuel, and construction material. Most industrialized nations have moved on to other sources, or have the luxury of more efficient (and thus less land-intensive) agriculture; urban parks and tree planting are also a hallmark of greater wealth and development. Various reports and studies seem to bear this out, too.

Let the data do the talking.

Source: Nature / Washington Post

Source: Nature / Washington Post

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that “it was not clear that there was any meaningful difference overall”.

Rather, it was simply the case that one emerging country grouping, “Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan” was quite low on trees — but then, that’s not surprising given the prevalence of desert in these countries. So it seems odd to relate this to economics, rather than simple geography. Simply put, some countries, due to their environments and climatic regimes, just can’t host as many trees as others.

“If you said to me, okay, the GDP per capita of Costa Rica is $8,000, I would have no way of telling you how many trees there are in Costa Rica or how dense those trees are”, said Yale’s Clara Rowe. She said that the most meaningful way of looking at the relationship between a country’s wealth and its tree resources would be to calculate a nation’s “forest potential” — how many trees it is actually capable of supporting — and then compare that with how many it actually has, which would then reflect how much the country has exploited those resources, as opposed to preserving them.

“That can really give us a better sense of what percentage of forest can be lost in every single country, and then maybe we can start relating that to things like GDP”, Rowe said. But the researchers haven’t done that analysis on a country-by-country level yet.

Studying “forest potential” would definitely be the next step. Granted, it is important to keep in mind that there is a big difference between having lots of trees and having lots of forest; a country’s cities might have plenty of trees in its parks, medians, and public spaces, but these would not support the sort of thriving ecosystem as an unspoiled forest would. While trees are important in their own right, for reasons specified earlier, they need to be in abundant number and left undisturbed to support certain wildlife. That would be a whole different sort of wealth to look into.

Climate Change Will Replace Our World With Another

An interesting article from Wired discusses what impact climate change will have on our global ecosystems. While the planet is warming and sea levels are rising, mot all regions, species, and ecological areas are being impacted the same; across all biological kingdoms, there will be winners and losers — including among humans, of whom those in coastal, agricultural, and poor communities will be hit the hardest (though everyone will ultimately be affected in some negative way; it is only the severity that will vary).

Climate change will be the end of the world as we know it. But it also will be the beginning of another.

Mass extinctions will open ecological niches, and environmental changes will create new ones. New creatures will evolve to fill them, guided by unforeseen selection pressures. What this new world will look like, exactly, is impossible to predict, and humans aren’t guaranteed to survive in it. (And that’s if civilization somehow manages to survive the climate disasters coming its way in the meantime, from superstorms to sea level rise to agriculture-destroying droughts).

Among the changes will be “simpler” rainforests lacking the capacity to host complex ecosystems (and thus thousands of different wildlife); acidic oceans dominated by crustaceans, jellyfish, and smaller fish species; and — to take a much longer view — the rapid evolution of surviving species (including humans) into something more adapted to warmer temperatures.

The article concludes with a bittersweet message: it might be too late for the current planet we know, but there is still a chance we can mitigate the impact of the transition and ensure  that this new Earth, whatever it will look like, is a bit better. The science and resources are there, but the public and political will remains sorely lacking. If it is still difficult to muster up action, is there any chance we will learn our lesson once the worst changes are visible?

The Case for Optimism on Climate Change

While climate change presents one of humanity’s greatest challenges, many scientists and policy advocates warn that framing the consequences in apocalyptic terms is both scientifically inaccurate and counterproductive. As Allison Schrager over at Quartz writes:

Considering what’s at stake, the extreme measures and playing up the stark predictions are understandable. But exaggerating the likelihood of extreme outcomes not only give deniers ammunition, it undermines convincing—even if not entirely certain—science. Gernot Wagner, the lead senior economist for the Environmental Defense Fund and research association at Harvard Kennedy School, told Quartz: “Even enviros get it wrong, they have a knee jerk reaction against anyone who questions the science.”

Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman co-authored the recent book Climate Shock: the economic consequences of a hotter planet, and they share my view that people can make good decisions when faced with an uncertain future. They use finance theory to argue the presence of risk is precisely why we need to limit carbon emissions sooner rather than later. In finance, risk poses a cost. You can pay to reduce it and often, the sooner you do, the cheaper it is to deal with the risk.

And the fact is, there still exists considerable uncertainty around the consequences of climate change. We know the planet is getting warmer. According to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the last 30 years may be the warmest in the last 1,400 years in the Northern hemisphere—the globally averaged temperature increased 0.85°C from 1880 to 2012.

We also know that humans are largely to blame. But our precise share is hard to know. Some of the temperature increase is caused by man and some of it may be naturally occurring because global temperatures naturally vary. The evidence is very compelling that human activity is responsible for a large share of global warming. Since the industrial revolution, humans have burned lots of fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The fossil fuels have increased the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to unprecedented levels, at least within the last 800,000 years. We’ve known since the 19th century that higher levels of CO2 increases the earth’s temperature. The fact that we put lots of CO2 into the atmosphere and temperatures have since increased makes a compelling case we’re largely at fault.

So there is no denying that humans have impacted the climate, and that the changes will be felt across ecosystems and societies (albeit to varying degrees). But the specific consequences span a continuum of possibilities, particularly into the longer term.  Continue reading