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With Earth in the throes of what many scientists consider our planet’s sixth mass extinction — as living organisms disappear, and even many of those seen as “species of low concern” are stricken by plunging populations and increasingly constricted ranges — conservation is a global concern.

Part of the problem is space: Humans take up a lot of land, with farming alone hogging almost 40 percent of land on Earth. Even if we muster the other resources needed for conserving endangered and threatened species, the question remains: Where do we put plants and animals we want to save?

One answer: Devote retired agricultural land to species on the edge.

In a review paper published in August in Ecosphere, Chris Lortie, senior fellow with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, and colleagues reported the results of their investigation into exactly that strategy. They zoomed in to California’s San Joaquin Valley, or San Joaquin Desert.

Today, agriculture and industry cover some 90 percent of the area, which has one of the continental United States’ highest concentrations of at-risk species. In 2014, the state passed groundwater legislation that could require retirement of hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in the area, creating stretches of otherwise unused land that could be adopted for conservation purposes. In the new study, the researchers synthesized findings from more than 250 scientific journal articles relevant to using retired farmland for conservation in the San Joaquin desert.

“This review suggests that retired agricultural land is a viable asset for threatened and endangered species,” the researchers wrote. But the specifics vary from place to place, and in the San Joaquin Desert, as in other areas, they say that specialists would need to test various restoration techniques and figure out how much such efforts would cost.

San Joaquin kit fox

The endangered San Joaquin kit fox is among many animals that could benefit from turning retired farmland back into wildlife habitat. Photo © iStockphoto.com/brentawp

To gain insight into how agricultural land might be turned toward conservation purposes, the researchers focused on three endangered animals: the San Joaquin kit fox, the giant kangaroo rat and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, all of which are found only in the San Joaquin Valley. After poring over the journal articles and additional materials from universities and government agencies in California, the researchers summarized some key conclusions.

First, they found that large amount of land in the San Joaquin Valley was once suitable habitat for the three species, but habitat loss has left them struggling for places to live. Retired agricultural land, the authors say, could be useful not only as habitat for endangered endemic species, but also as pathways allowing animals to move between existing populations, which might help those populations maintain genetic diversity.  The researchers also say that retiring agricultural land near existing animal habitat will boost the chance of successful conservation.

But it’s not just a matter of setting land aside for conservation. Restoration efforts would need to cut down on the prominence of exotic plants and find ways, such as mulch and irrigation, to combat the challenges recent droughts pose for reintroduced native species.

While the researchers gleaned this information from the hundreds of studies they reviewed on the San Joaquin Desert, they found few projects directly experimenting with restoration on the ground. They also turned up no information on how much it might cost to turn former farmlands into new habitat.

While the study used the San Joaquin Desert as a case study, its main lessons likely hold true in many other areas as well. The bottom line: retired farmland could be a valuable asset for conserving endangered and threatened species, but the more we know about how to do it right — and the more we pay attention to those lessons — the more effective conservation strategies will be. View Ensia homepage

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Transitions by definition are disruptive. Whether it’s switching jobs, electing new leaders, passing laws or adopting innovative technologies, some people gain while others lose. So it’s no surprise that, just as manure shovel manufacturers found the switch to horseless carriages shaking up their world, the current shift from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources, though ultimately beneficial to all of us, will cause pain to some people in the form of lost jobs, destabilized communities and more.

If we move into the energy transition with eyes wide open to the costs involved, we can work to eliminate or minimize them where possible, and justly distribute and compensate for them where not. But first we need a way to figure out what those costs are and who is bearing them.

In a paper published earlier this month in Nature Energy, Sanya Carley of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and colleagues propose a strategy for doing just that. Based on a framework developed more than a decade ago to characterize vulnerability to climate change, the researchers created and tested a tool for quantifying and comparing the impact of changes in energy policy or practice on different populations.

Determinants of vulnerability to energy policy changes

Vulnerability to negative impacts of energy policy is influenced by exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. Reprinted by permission from Springer Nature, Nature Energy, A framework for evaluating geographic disparities in energy transition vulnerability, S. Carley et al, 2018. Numbers refer to references in original paper. Click to expand.

The tool, known as the vulnerability scoping diagram (VSD), merges three core elements of vulnerability: exposure (the extent to which a population experiences the consequences of the change), sensitivity (the extent to which the population is likely to be harmed) and adaptive capacity (the ability of the population to minimize the severity of the harm). Numbers representing the magnitude of each are combined to create a vulnerability score that can then be used to visualize the relative impact of the change on individuals, communities or regions.

To demonstrate the tool’s usefulness, the researchers applied it to mapping adverse impacts of state renewable portfolio standards (RPS). The exposure they looked at was the effect of RPS on electricity price. Susceptibility was based on past research that shows the elderly, very young, communities of color, people in poverty and people who spend a large proportion of their income on energy are most affected by increases in energy prices. As a measure of adaptive capacity, the researchers used access to national energy assistance programs. The results showed a wide range in vulnerability from county to county in states with an RPS.

Vulnerability to adverse impacts from renewable portfolio standards can vary dramatically. Reprinted by permission from Springer Nature, Nature Energy, A framework for evaluating geographic disparities in energy transition vulnerability, S. Carley et al., 2018. Click to expand.

The researchers acknowledged that the approach has some limitations. For one, the vulnerability map would likely change over time (for instance, as new businesses arose based on new energy sources) and vary depending on which impacts are considered. In addition, the VSD provides only part of the picture of the societal impacts of an energy transition, since it does not look at the positive impacts and their distribution or at the costs of not implementing the practice under consideration.

Despite these caveats, the team concluded that the metric can serve as a valuable tool for suggesting areas where policy-makers and service providers might focus their efforts as they work to anticipate, minimize and justly distribute adverse impacts as society moves toward a clean energy future. View Ensia homepage


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Whether it’s using plants to power muscles, ancient buried carbon to transport ourselves, or nuclear reactions to light up the dark, humans always have — and always will — depend on energy to meet the basic needs of life. Exactly how we do that, though, is undergoing a change today as profound as the ones that moved us from depending on our own labor to horsepower, or from horsepower to fossil fuels. Underlying changes in geopolitics, environmental and health concerns, economics, technology, consumer demand and business models are driving a global transition toward more sustainable, inclusive, secure and affordable energy production, distribution and consumption systems.

How smoothly the transition takes place, and how the benefits and costs of undergoing it balance out, likely will depend on the extent to which we strategically direct it, rather than just let it happen. To that end, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has established a Systemic Initiative on Shaping the Future of Energy as a way to argue for, and provide tools for shaping, a good energy transition.

As part of that effort, WEF, with help from McKinsey & Company, just released a new guide aimed at stimulating policies, corporate actions and public-private collaborations that promote a healthy shift.

global energy transition readiness

Countries around the world vary dramatically in how well their current energy system works and their readiness to move to more sustainable systems. Courtesy of World Economic Forum. Click to enlarge.

The guide, Fostering Effective Energy Transition: A Fact-based Framework to Support Decision-Making, presents an Energy Transition Index (ETI) that makes it possible to quantify for individual countries how well the current energy system is working (measured along the three dimensions of security and access, environmental sustainability, and economic development and growth) and the country’s readiness to undergo a transition to a new energy system, taking into account factors such as infrastructure, institutions, capital and political commitment.

Applying the index to 114 countries around the world, WEF draws three main conclusions. First, though most countries assessed have improved their energy systems in recent years, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Second, energy transitions can be encouraged by 1) creating conditions that facilitate desired change; 2) making sure to make improvements across all three areas of access, sustainability and economy; and 3) pursuing strategies that provide multiple synergistic benefits. Third, it’s important to recognize that each country needs to follow its own path — yet each can still learn from others.

WEF plans to update the index regularly to provide further benchmarks and feedback across time in hopes people will use the ETI to better understand how prepared various countries are to undergo an energy transition, motivate less-prepared countries to prepare, and provide ideas for how to best go about doing so. View Ensia homepage



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Tallgrass prairie, and the rich diversity of plants and animals it supports, covered 150 million acres (61 million hectares) of the central United States when white settlers began plowing it under in the 19th century to make room for crops. In today’s agriculture-dominated Midwest and eastern plains, about 4 percent of that prairie remains.

Now, a team of Iowa State University researchers, educators and extension agents is turning up evidence that weaving strips of prairie into row-crop farms can provide valuable wildlife habitat while blunting some of the worst environmental impacts of modern agriculture in the midwestern U.S.

Those impacts are significant. Excess nutrients from fertilizers and manure have fueled a New Jersey–size “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, sparked legal fights in Iowa about polluted drinking water and blanketed parts of the Great Lakes in algae. At the same time, corn and soybean fields displace grassland habitat for wildlife and are sloughing off soil at an unsustainable rate.

“All of these are concerns for people who own land, who farm, who live in these landscapes,” says Matt O’Neal, an associate professor of entomology at Iowa State who has been part of the research team for about a decade. “There are a bunch of solutions for any one of them. But what makes prairie strips really cool is that a single practice can address all of them.”

In a paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group reported a decade’s worth of data showing that covering just 10 percent of cropland in prairie strips — planted in ribbons about 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters) wide, perpendicular to the land’s slope as a barrier to runoff — cut soil loss from fields where they were planted by 95 percent and reduced phosphorus and nitrogen runoff by 77 and 70 percent, respectively. The strips also more than doubled the abundance of birds and pollinators.

The researchers also found that the strips didn’t cost as much as many other conservation practices, and did not reduce yield in the area planted in crops. Nearly 50 farms have planted prairie strips in Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin, and a handful more will soon join them. Those growers want to be good stewards of their land, the researchers say, and see prairie strips as an affordable conservation tool that may ultimately help their bottom line by boosting soil health and attracting beneficial insects. Many farmers can offset the cost of strips by enrolling them in farm bill conservation programs and by using GPS and other technology to plant prairie in a field’s least productive areas.

As more farmers adopt prairie strips, research into their benefits continues. Some team members, for instance, are investigating strips as a way to halt the spread of antibiotic-resistant microbes. O’Neal and collaborators, meanwhile, are conducting research that suggests nectar- and pollen-rich prairie strips may help honeybees — and, presumably, native pollinators — survive winter by maintaining a healthy weight after crops stop flowering.

Though not the main selling point for using prairie strips, the benefit to pollinators is well worth noting, O’Neal says.

“If prairie strips are a hamburger, the nutrient reduction is the meat, soil erosion is the bun, and the sesame seeds on the top of that bun—that’s improvements for honeybees,” he explains. “It’s not going to sell you the hamburger, but it makes it look even better.”   View Ensia homepage

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When your phone stops working or you trade up for a newer model, where does it go? Like any electronic device — from laptops to lamps, washing machines to flat screen TVs — it doesn’t just disappear. It becomes electronic waste, or e-waste — a fast-growing category of trash that in 2016 alone added up to a hefty 44.7 million metric tons (49.3 million tons) worldwide, according to The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, a new report published by the United Nations University, the International Telecommunication Union and the International Solid Waste Association. That’s the weight equivalent of close to 25 million passenger cars.

Even though that e-waste contains billions of dollars’ worth of precious metals and other valuable components, just 20 percent was officially tracked and properly recycled in 2016, according to the new report. The remaining 80 percent? It’s not consistently documented, and most of it is likely dumped, traded or recycled in haphazard, potentially harmful ways. When disposed of incorrectly, for instance by open burning, e-waste can harm people and the environment.

The three organizations produced The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017 to draw attention to the threat of e-waste, which they project will climb to 52.2 million metric tons (57.5 million tons) by 2021. By building awareness of the nature and scope of the problem, they aim to increase global reporting on e-waste as a first step toward minimizing waste production, reducing illegal disposal and boosting recycling and the economic benefits it offers.

The report notes that of the more than 190 countries on Earth, only 41 collect international statistics on e-waste, leaving much of the world’s people with little more than anecdotal awareness of where their e-waste ends up. And while experts know that wealthier nations dump lots of e-waste in lower income countries, there are no decent statistics tracking exact numbers.

The amount of electronic waste generated (WG) and collected varies dramatically among regions. From: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017. United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna.

The amount of electronic waste generated (WG) and collected varies dramatically among regions. From: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann, P. The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017. United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna. Click to enlarge.

Because global data aren’t available, the report’s findings are estimates based on a series of statistical procedures. After noting the total weight of all electronic devices sold since 1980, the researchers calculated when products were likely discarded based on their estimated lifespan. By comparing estimates of discarded devices with recorded e-waste statistics, they approximated how much waste is generated and recycled in each of five regions — Asia, Europe, the Americas, Africa and Oceana.

Some governments are responding. By 2017, 66 percent of the world’s population was covered by some sort of national e-waste regulation, compared to 44 percent just three years prior — a jump largely due to India, which tightened its e-waste management rules in 2016. The report notes, however, that no guarantee exists that regulations are enforced effectively, and even among countries with rules on the books, many don’t cover all kinds of e-waste. It calls for enhanced efforts to develop e-waste policies and improve e-waste reporting as key steps toward correcting these deficits. View Ensia homepage

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In the Global South, hundreds of millions of people are exposed to mycotoxins — deadly compounds produced by fungi growing on food.

Mycotoxins raise the risk of cancer and, at high doses, can kill their victims. They’re made by mold growing on staple foods like nuts, corn and other grains. Experts are concerned that climate change is helping the molds thrive.

A recent report from the United Nations’ International Agency for Research on Cancer outlined more than a dozen potential strategies for intervention. Most of the strategies require further research before they can be deployed — but here are four ready to go right now.

More Diverse Diets

Mycotoxins don’t affect all crops equally. Corn and groundnuts, for example, are more commonly contaminated than staples such as rice, sorghum and millet. Eating mold-prone foods less often, and consuming alternatives instead, can reduce mycotoxin exposure.

Dietary diversity is no simple goal: Shifting people’s food preferences presents a substantial social challenge even when communities possess economic power. But the true trap is poverty, since more money means the capacity to buy a wider range of foods.

Discarding Contaminated Crops

Farmers, villages and others can take action in the post-harvest stage of food production, including by sorting contaminated and uncontaminated crops. Studies of corn in Africa show that villages can cut the concentration of mycotoxins by removing moldy grains.

To improve sorting in the Global South, the report recommends training rural women to effectively hand sort. Equipment for automatic sorting could also help: Commercial nut farmers in developed nations employ electronic optical sorters, for example, but such technology remains out of reach for many agricultural operations worldwide.

Food security poses one of the most pernicious obstacles to using this approach, especially in Africa. When food is scarce, people are not inclined to throw out parts of their harvest.


Cooking and soaking cornmeal in limewater or a similar substance, a process called nixtamalization, breaks down some mycotoxins.

It’s common in Central and South America, though efficacy varies depending on the exact process. Nixtamalization has yet to be adapted for Asia and Africa.

Better Storage

Mold can grow on crops even after they’ve been harvested. A number of factors can cause accumulation of mycotoxins, including hot temperatures, high humidity, insects, rodents, crops being dried inadequately and water seeping into crop storage.

Improving agricultural storage can mitigate many of these issues. Crops dried more quickly after harvest are less likely to grow much mold, and storage facilities that are clean and dry can also help keep mycotoxins at bay. Other interventions, including proper water drainage, also help.

Research validates each of the four interventions, but resources are needed to put them into practice.

“As currently envisaged,” the report says, “the recommendations would be relevant for investment of public, nongovernmental organization, and private funds, at the scale of the subsistence farmer, the smallholder, and through to a more advanced value chain.” View Ensia homepage

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Each year more than a score of futurists, researchers and others from around the world put their heads together to identify top “under-the-radar” trends that have the potential to dramatically alter for better or worse our ability to protect biological diversity.

The team of two dozen researchers is led by William Sutherland, professor of conservation biology at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. “We hope,” they write, “that our annual scans not only highlight topics of potential relevance to biological conservation but also to the wider environment and, by extension, to human well-being.” In other words, the list gives us the opportunity to get out in front of issues before they become problems or maximize the benefits (and minimize downsides) of emerging technologies.

This year’s report, published yesterday in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, identifies 15 potentially hot topics lurking in the wings.

The top issues for 2018:

Trouble With Thiamine

Researchers have been observing a deficiency in thiamine, an essential vitamin, in fish, birds and bivalve mollusks in the northern hemisphere. The nutrient, also known as Vitamin B1, is important for proper metabolism and nervous system function, and insufficient thiamine even for a few days could make wildlife more vulnerable to diseases or less able to reproduce. The culprit is unknown, but scientists suspect a change in availability of algae that make thiamine and/or pollutants that make it harder for animals to absorb the vitamin.

Chronic Wasting Disease on the Move

Chronic wasting disease, a deadly brain disease that infects members of the deer family, was first found in the United Sates in 1967 and has since been found in 23 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. More recently CWD was diagnosed in deer relatives in South Korea and Norway, raising concerns that it could soon spread to other countries. The disease not only kills animals directly, it also has huge implications for ecosystems such as the Scandinavian tundra, which face disruption if large numbers of plant-eaters die.

Diseases From the Deep Freeze

Other diseases are raising concerns this year as well — primary among them, those caused by pathogens that have been trapped in frozen soils for decades, centuries or millennia. A heat wave in Siberia in 2016 caused the release of anthrax bacteria from thawing ground, resulting in the death of one person and 2,000 reindeer. As global warming and increased economic activity in the northern latitudes causes permafrost to thaw, other bacteria and viruses may reactivate and begin to infect living things as well, altering ecosystems and potentially threatening species already living on the edge.

Genetic Pesticide Control

Scientists are experimenting with a possible gene-based approach to control viruses and insects that attack plants. The approach involves spraying plants with a specific configuration of double-stranded ribonucleic acid (dsRNA) designed to disrupt production of a particular protein in the pest. When the insect or virus of concern attacks the plant, it can encounter the dsRNA and eventually be killed by, or have its reproduction disrupted by, the absence of the protein whose construction it blocks. The approach, which can extend beyond plant applications to include protecting animals from pests, could help plants stay healthy and reduce the need for other pesticides. However, there is concern that it also could harbor unintended consequences for nontarget species.

Editing Out Invaders

CRISPR gene editing has taken the world by storm in recent years. Among the applications drawing the most interest is the use of the technology to cause population declines in undesirable organisms, such as nonnative invasive species that compete for habitat or outright eat native plants and animals. Deployment of the technology in this way could provide a big boost to native species. However, concerns remain about keeping it under control to avoid spread to unintended locations or species.

Laser-Focus Fishing

Bottom trawling, a common way to catch ocean fish that involves dragging nets along the ocean floor, is tough on seabed ecosystems, harms nontarget organisms and is energy intensive. Icelandic innovators have introduced a variation on the theme that uses automated controls to keep the device from bumping the bottom and herds desired fish into it using laser beams. Widespread adoption of this technology could be good news for the ocean floor and the organisms that frequent them — but also raises concerns about making it easier to harvest fish faster than they can replenish their populations.

Metals That Capture Water

Human demand for water is growing at the same time a changing climate is making conventional supplies less certain. Now, researchers are working to perfect a technique to literally produce water from thin air using metal-based crystals and energy from the sun. Implications for conservation are mixed: The technology could reduce our need to disrupt ecosystems to obtain surface or groundwater for human use, but it also could make it easier for us to extend agriculture into natural spaces and alter the water cycle to the detriment of plants and animals.

Boosting Salt Tolerance in Plants

Withdrawal of groundwater and sea-level rise are increasing the salinity of soils in various locations around the world, making it hard for crops to thrive. However, scientists are studying strategies for improving the salt tolerance of plants, including genetically engineering molecules that transport sodium and administering silicon, which boosts such molecules’ capacity to protect the plant from being harmed by salt. Introduction of such technologies could benefit or harm native ecosystems, depending on how they’re applied: If used to improve productivity of degraded agricultural soils they could reduce pressure to plow new lands, but they also could make it easier for modified plants to outcompete native ones, reducing wild populations.

Finger on the Pulse

A solid understanding of people’s awareness, knowledge, interest and understanding of conservation topics is critical for designing and carrying out effective policies and practices. But how to get that “finger on the pulse”? An emerging resource is culturomics, the analysis of words — and, increasingly, images and sounds — in various media. Policy-makers and planners can use culturomics for help understanding predispositions and existing knowledge as a first step toward such things as showing how people value nature, understanding what makes people appreciate conservation, and identifying the effectiveness of conservation activities. Culturomics can also be used, however, to counter conservation initiatives by those with a vested interest in seeing them not succeed.

Iron, Redistributed

Iron, an essential component of living things, is continuously moving among land, water and organisms. As oceans acidify and warm, this cycling is changing, altering iron’s ability to support life. Models suggest that initially iron may be more available to life forms as floating ice gouges the seafloor, but long-term predictions are for an overall decrease in availability. Of particular concern is the extent to which iron is available to phytoplankton, the foundation of the ocean’s food web. This limitation may increase pressure to fertilize the ocean as a strategy to maintain or increase its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the air.

Soil Carbon Wake-up

Most of Earth’s carbon is found in soil, but it’s not trapped there forever. As microbes degrade organic matter, carbon moves into the atmosphere, where it can contribute to climate change. And as climate changes, soil may release more and more carbon, faster and faster, in an ominous feedback loop. Current climate models consider this movement, but there is evidence they may underestimate release from deep layers of soil. If so, the release of carbon from soils could result in faster planetary warming than current models predict.

Quick Change Qinghai

The climate of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in Asia is changing rapidly, with temperatures and precipitation both noticeably increasing in the past several decades. In the coming years, scientists anticipate that further climatic changes will not only cause lakes to overflow and soils to release more carbon on the plateau itself, but also create domino-effect impacts on weather systems across Europe and Asia with implications for plants, animals and ecosystems far beyond the plateau.

Ocean Collaboration

The world’s largest marine protected area, the Ross Sea MPA, was established in late 2017, leading conservationists to hope that momentum is building for designating additional sites around the world. In addition, legislation being managed by the international Convention on the Law of the Sea is being considered that would provide new protection to plants and animals living in the ocean and allow for new approaches to setting up MPAs. Even though the Ross Sea MPA agreement sunsets in 35 years, together these advances are seen as bringing fresh hope for ocean conservation.

Belt and Road Meets Environment

China’s US$1.25 trillion proposal to build six transportation corridors linking Asia and Europe, known as the Belt and Road Initiative, offers tremendous opportunity for incorporating sustainable design into a massive new infrastructure — or unprecedented potential for environmental disaster if done wrong. Big cats, in particular, could be under threat, with the proposed routes crossing territories for snow leopards, Amur tigers and Far Eastern leopards. Initial signs are that The Chinese government has expressed commitment generally to protect the environment, but documents related to the Belt and Road Initiative do not currently reflect this. Whether it makes environmental protection a priority on this massive initiative, only time — and, perhaps, international vigilance — will tell.

New Phones, New Concerns

The nature of 5G, the next wave of cellphone technology, is such that antennas may likely be scattered densely throughout communities, increasing the exposure of animals to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields. Because only limited research has been conducted exploring the impacts of such radiation on wildlife, we risk potential unintended harm to living things exposed to the fields as 5G systems are set into place. View Ensia homepage

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Planet of the insects? Heck no. Planet of the microbes.

Science has long struggled with estimating how many species of living things inhabit our planet. We’ve named some 1.5 million of them, but we know there are vastly more. Highly educated guesses of late have ranged from 2 million to 1 trillion, with most in the range of 11 million or fewer.

Now, using DNA analyses that increase the expected number of insect and closely related species to around 40 million, and factoring in the abundant microorganisms that live on or in them, a research team from the University of Arizona has come up with a new estimate: at least 1–6 billion.

The study, published in the September Quarterly Review of Biology, differs from previous calculations in three ways. First, it includes all major groups of organisms, not just the ones we can see. Second, it uses molecular analyses to distinguish between species that look alike. And third, it focuses on organisms that live in and on insects, itself an amazingly diverse group.

Relative abundance of different types of organisms based on known species (left), previously projected richness (center), and the current study. Courtesy of Brendan B. Larsen, Elizabeth C. Miller, Matthew K. Rhodes and John J. Wiens

The results, though still quite speculative, dramatically alter our understanding of how life is sliced and diced among different forms. Where insects were once considered by far the most abundant, in the new depiction of what the authors call “The Pie of Life” they are relegated to just part of the tiny wedge allotted to animals, while bacteria and other microorganisms make up the vast bulk — 70 to 90 percent — of the picture.

Improved awareness of species diversity provides a valuable foundation for efforts to understand and maintain the integrity of natural systems. The authors note, for instance, that in addition to dramatically expanding and refining our best estimate of the number of species on Earth, the analysis suggests that organisms that live with or in other organisms are the source of most of life’s diversity.

And, we might add, that 19th century mathematician Augustus de Morgan was onto something when he penned this memorable verse:

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. View Ensia homepage

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 Climate change is coming home, and some have no choice but to get out of the way.

Last year in Alaska, with its coast thawing and eroding away, the town of Shishmaref voted to relocate. The village of Newtok, Alaska is seeking federal disaster relief to fund its move. In the Louisiana bayou, the native Isle de Jean Charles tribe has lost 98 percent of their land to the sea. It, too, is looking to move.

“Community displacements due to climate change are about so much more than moving possessions and finding new homes,” Maxine Burkett, a law professor at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, said in a press release. “They uproot entire communities and tear at the fabric of life while threatening cohesiveness and culture, as well as doing harm to individuals, families and businesses. However, migrations and relocations don’t have to be chaotic if communities have the funding and other resources needed to take advantage of tools for acquiring new land and reestablishing their communities in safer, more secure areas.”

Moving entire communities is no simple task, so successful relocations will need to draw on a range of legal and policy tools. That’s the message from a report co-authored by Burkett and published by the Center for Progressive Reform, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit group with a nationwide network of member scholars.

The report, Reaching Higher Ground: Avenues to Secure and Manage New Land for Communities Displaced by Climate Change, reviews strategies communities can use to acquire and govern new land while preserving the heritage of the places they’re forced to leave behind.

Securing Land

One big challenge is securing new land for relocation. If communities can find ways to raise revenue, for example by taxing local businesses, they can buy land outright. Or communities might seek out government grants and loans.

Some funding is available through federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Last year, the Isle de Jean Charles tribe won a US$48 million federal grant, the first of its kind, to help with relocating inland.

Communities can also head to Congress. In 2010, for example, Congress allocated over 400 acres (160 hectares) of upland area to the Hoh Indian Tribe, a small coastal community in Washington state threatened by eroding land and rising seas.

“Native communities are the first and worst hit when it comes to this relocation issue,” says Burkett. Tribes can investigate whether they have historical claim to areas suitable for relocation. Such investigations may provide grounds for litigation aimed at repossessing these lands. Communities may also consider entering tribal lands into a federal trust.

Governing Land

After securing land, communities must rebuild. In the wake of resettlement, how can communities manage infrastructure and land for the benefit of all?

One path the report outlines is to incorporate as a city or town, which gives communities power over zoning and taxes, as well as enhanced eligibility for government grants. Another option is to form nonprofit community organizations like homeowners associations and community land trusts. Through such groups, people can manage common property and even buy new land.

Whatever kind of legal entity guides resettlement, groups can use legal tools to ensure an orderly transition. The report notes, for instance, that “[c]ommunities can influence land use, development, and ownership by placing legal conditions in property deeds” such as prohibitions on pollution or a ban on forest clear-cutting.

Communities might also use property deeds to maintain future integrity. They might, for instance, write deeds giving landowners lifetime ownership of a given parcel with control returning to the community after the owner dies. A deed could also give the community the right of first refusal for purchasing land back before it is sold to another entity.

Preserving Land and Culture

The report underscores the importance of equity and self-determination for relocating communities.

“We see climate impacts happening, and specifically relocation, happening first to communities that themselves have had a very fraught relationship with relocation over time and historically,” Burkett says. “There are multiple layers of justice, equity and fairness that we have to think about.”

Beyond concerns about what will happen to an area’s natural resources, the report notes, people’s identities are intertwined with the places in which they live and which are part of their history.

“Purchasing land and moving inland is fine,” says Chantel Cormardelle, executive secretary of the Isle de Jean Charles tribe. “But finding a mechanism to properly preserve the land that you’re leaving in a culturally appropriate way is first and foremost.”

The report notes that rights to resources such as minerals and timber can be separated from rights to own the land’s surface, opening a door for communities to sell land without losing access to economically important raw materials.

To help communities retain selected land rights the report recommends easements, which can guarantee ongoing access to land or the preservation of natural features and historic structures. For tribes, historical treaties may include provisions allowing members to use traditional lands for subsistence, provisions that can provide a legal basis for continued access to lands left behind.

Communities can also work to have such rights legislated. Near the Bering Sea, for example, residents of the native village of Newtok, faced with relocation, were able to secure legislation retaining their right to fish, hunt and gather on traditional lands.

Proactive Planning

Climate relocation is complex. While options abound, many are limited in scope and potential, requiring intensive coordination and creative problem solving. And, with disaster constantly looming on the horizon, pressure is on to prepare sooner rather than later.

“Every passing hurricane season, our community is at risk for a storm to come and just wipe it out,” says Cormardelle. “You just sit on pins and needles until after the hurricane season finishes, and then you can breather a little bit easier until the next one. It is a constant worry, but at the same time, we’re trying to be as proactive as we can to put things in place.” View Ensia homepage

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From migrating birds to pollinating bees to seed-dispersing plants, thousands of species depend on the quality of the aerosphere­ — the layer of air that surrounds our planet. Despite this, aircraft, wind farms, drones, telecommunication towers and other anthropogenic infrastructure increasingly crowd this critical habitat. Current species conservation efforts are generally focused on terrestrial and aquatic habitats, but not on airspace as a similarly important ecosystem. This needs to change, says a group of Canadian scientists in a recent article in Conservation Letters.

The authors want to see the airspace recognized and protected as an ecosystem that supports myriad species in a diversity of ways. It’s well known that many birds are killed in collisions with manmade structures — an estimated 44 million-plus per year in Canada alone. Efforts are underway to tackle this issue, but the authors argue for a more comprehensive framework that incorporates other threats such as aerial habitat fragmentation and chemical pollution, as well as for legislation that assigns responsibility for aerosphere conservation.

“The first step is for people to acknowledge that the space above us that looks so big and empty is actually a critical habitat for many, many animals,” says lead author Christina Davy, a wildlife research ecologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. “Once that’s in place, the doors open for the same kind of protection to be assigned to airspace that we already assign to terrestrial and aquatic habitats.”

Aerial habitats may be as important as wildlife corridors and marine parks for preserving biodiversity. The authors’ analysis of threatened vertebrate species suggests that roughly 20 percent rely to some extent on air space. The proportion may be much higher for the thousands of insects, plant seeds and microorganisms that drift or zoom through the air, they say, but right now, we don’t know what those numbers are. Research that investigates these gaps makes up only a small proportion of published studies in this field.

A recent surge in interest from the academic community may change that. “Scientists are producing really exciting research about how animals use the airspace,” says Davy, “But it hasn’t translated into the policy needed to conserve that habitat the way we do for other habitat types.”

For example, Davy says, with the right policy, an aerial protected area could be established to minimize harm to a host of migrating species like birds or insects. “It wouldn’t even need to be in place year-round to be an effective tool,” she notes.

The authors acknowledge that their proposal carries substantial logistical and political challenges. However, they argue that as humans continue to fill the skies with structures and aircraft, the airspace needs to be managed within a conservation framework that takes a bird’s-eye view. View Ensia homepage

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Florida’s Kissimmee River once flowed freely. Fish, birds and other wildlife dwelled in the wetlands it fed. But in the 1960s, spurred by public outrage over flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened the winding waterway and turned it into a drainage canal.

Flip forward a few decades and the river is returning — at least in part. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has partnered with the South Florida Water Management District on the Kissimmee River Restoration Project, aiming to restore a long section of the river to its natural state.

How can the Kissimmee team and others best restore degraded environments in the face of the unpredictable and tumultuous future that climate change promises? A big part of the answer is by building in resilience — the ability to resist change or to recover from disturbance in a way that preserves the essence of a system’s structure and function.

To that end, Britta Timpane-Padgham, a fisheries biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, and colleagues have created an interactive decision support table that restoration professionals can use to choose strategies and goals that best boost climate change resilience in the systems in which they’re working.

Published last month in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, the table is based on a review of hundreds of studies of restoration projects covering a number of ecosystem types, including rivers, coasts, forests and lakes. Timpane-Padgham and colleagues reviewed the studies and identified 45 factors — ranging from genetic diversity to habitat connectivity to air carbon balance — that build resilience into restoration projects.

A few major themes popped up again and again. Connections between different areas let species move and migrate, which is crucial to resilience in many restoration efforts, including Florida’s Kissimmee River project. Habitat variability helps by making ecosystems more resilient to extreme climate events. A history of natural disturbance also can contribute to successful restoration.

The decision support table sorts resilience attributes into five categories based roughly on ecological scale: individual, population, community, ecosystem and process. Life span and reproductive strategy, for example, are individual attributes, while population density and genetic diversity are population attributes. Ecosystem attributes include habitat area, habitat condition and connections between different habitats. Each of the 45 attributes has two components: the project’s focus (whether it aims to restore a species, a habitat, or a whole system) and the project’s scale (whether it’s operating on one population, a single site, or an entire ecosystem).

Anyone who is interested can download and use the decision support table, which comes as an Excel spreadsheet (click the “S1 Table” link on the paper’s PLOS ONE page). For guidance on a project, practitioners simply choose an appropriate focus and scale, then the table returns a list of attributes in the five categories that can best help build resilience under that project’s unique circumstances. Users are encouraged to provide feedback to the project team so the tool can be improved in the future.

“In the face of climate change,” the study notes, “restoration approaches that promote natural sources of resilience are more likely to be successful than those that focus on creating optimal steady states.” View Ensia homepage

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Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas and ozone-layer depleting compound, and each year humans are responsible for releasing millions of tons of it into the air. Recently, an international group of chemical engineers suggested an innovative strategy for reducing nitrous oxide levels globally: Partner an electricity-producing system known as a solar chimney power plant (SCPP) with reactive glass that can decompose nitrous oxide from the atmosphere into nitrogen and oxygen.

Courtesy de Richter, R., Ming, T., et al. “Removal of non-CO2 greenhouse gases by large-scale atmospheric solar photocatalysis.” Progress in Energy and Combustion Science 60 (2017): 68-96.

An SCPP is composed of a low canopy at the base for collecting air and absorbing sunlight, a tall hollow tower to control the release of clean air, and turbines that generate electricity. The researchers propose layering the solar chimney’s canopy area with glass plates coated with titanium dioxide, a product found in things like paint, sunscreen and food coloring that can use light to break down nitrous oxide. Because titanium dioxide is self-cleaning, non-toxic, cheap and stable, the report suggests, the result would be a sustainable and low-maintenance option for reducing nitrous oxide pollution while also producing power.

This dual-force technology has a long way to go before it can reach its full potential. For example, more research needs to be done on the ideal volume of titanium dioxide and the best temperature for reducing nitrous oxide in the atmosphere and producing solar electricity in a relatively cost-effective way. For more details, read the full study here. View Ensia homepage

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Climate change’s effects on humankind may prove most severe on the African continent, due to widespread poverty and unstable governance in many countries. Yet scientists and policy-makers on the continent suffer from a serious lack of access to climate science data. Future Climate for Africa aims to change the tide by conveying the latest scientific information to those who need it most as well as identifying knowledge gaps and filling them. In that vein, FCFA just published a new report that provides easy-to-digest fact sheets on climate trends and implications in various regions throughout the continent.

“Africa’s Climate: Helping Decision‑Makers Make Sense of Climate Information” compiles the latest science into 15 fact sheets. The first five fact sheets provide general climate information for central, east, southern and west Africa, with one additional fact sheet on southern Africa aimed at scientists. The next four fact sheets address “burning questions” related to climate science in the four regions. The report concludes with general reader-level fact sheets on six of the countries in which FCFA works: Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Central Africa: Due to lack of climate data, the central region is severely understudied. Few weather stations exist through the Congo Basin, for example. With the second largest carbon stock of any country, the Democratic Republic of Congo is critical to offsetting greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change. Yet it’s difficult given the current state of the science to predict how climate will affect rainfall or how changes in rainfall will affect carbon stores in the country’s rainforests. Many people in Central Africa rely on rain-fed agriculture, so understanding rainfall changes will be critical to preventing harmful impacts on health and livelihoods.

East Africa: Models show that East Africa will become hotter, with less predictable yet more intense rainfall, along with longer dry seasons in the coming decades. On the other hand, models sometimes provide conflicting and uncertain results, particularly with rainfall. Tropical Africa has two rainy seasons, “short rains” and “long rains,” interspersed with dry seasons. East Africa has experienced droughts during recent long rains seasons, yet models predict increasing rainfall in the decades ahead. Adaptation projects in this region will require flexibility so nations can respond to whatever changes actually occur. Floods are likely to affect sanitation in urban areas. Uganda relies on hydroelectric power and exports energy to Kenya, and will have to adapt to increased or decreased rainfall and address water release rules to hold more in high rainfall years.

Southern Africa: The subtropical area of southern Africa experiences four seasons and has a series of mountain ranges that influence weather. Oceans on either side of the region influence rainfall. Southern Africa is relatively well studied, with over 40 climate models simulating the next 5 to 50 years and some simulating up to 100 years. This fact sheet includes a primer on how climate simulations work and how they model uncertainty.

West Africa: People’s daily lives in the West Africa region are substantially affected by year-to-year climate variability, due to reliance on rain-fed agriculture and limited availability of clean water, among other things. The region has already experienced an average temperature rise of 1 °C (1.8  °F) since 1950, and in the Sahel average temperature has increased even more, mostly due to hotter nights. Climate models show increased temperatures, although predicted changes in rainfall vary among models.

Check out the full report here. View Ensia homepage

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Cities are hubs of commerce, politics, population — and evolution? Yep. Due to human-wrought environmental change, biological evolution moves more quickly in cities than in other areas, according to a new paper published by an international team of researchers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study, based on analysis of 89 previously published studies, found that for animals and plants, models based on whether urbanization was in play best explained speedy evolution of observable traits such as body size, anatomy, life cycle, behavior and physiology.

“What is the very important implication of this study is that the urban habitat is not simply reducing the number and diversity of species,” says Marina Alberti, lead author of the study and director of the University of Washington’s Urban Ecology Research Laboratory. “We are selectively determining which species can live in cities.”

Alberti gives the example of electrical transmission towers. One study from the United Kingdom found that in soils polluted with zinc due to the towers’ presence, different grasses, such as sheep’s fescue and tufted hairgrass, have evolved different levels of zinc tolerance. However, genes needed for tolerance don’t appear in every individual of a species; if tolerant plants are absent in some local habitats, this could affect the ecosystem by changing the local community composition. Urban environments are the backdrop for many such interactions, which can happen at a speed that hasn’t always been associated with evolution.

“[E]volutionary biologists have been aware of the interactions between ecology and evolution for a long time,” Alberti noted in a follow-up email, “but the potential ecosystem feedback on a contemporary scale has been overlooked until very recently because we thought that evolution was occurring on a very long timescale.”

To take a stab at determining which aspects of urban development hasten evolution’s pace, the researchers coded different kinds of urban disturbance into their models. They found that introduction of new species — predators, prey, hosts and competitors — had a large association with the changes they looked at.

Another potentially major driver of rapid urban evolution is the number and speed of interactions between people and people, people and animals, and people and plants. Counterintuitively, changes to habitat correlated with relatively low evolutionary change, a finding the researchers said might be due to limitations to the study’s methods.

A few words of caution, though: This research is the first to systematically and explicitly examine, using a large global data set, how urbanization affects evolution, so other researchers have not yet replicated it, a process that could help confirm the findings. Meta-analyses like this study rely on already published research, and it’s impossible to get a truly random sample of phenotypic (observable) changes from across the globe, so over- or under-representation of studies from particular areas, ecosystems, or organisms could affect the results. In particular, the authors acknowledge that their conclusions about the relative importance of different urban processes to evolution should be viewed with caution because those results might be influenced by factors including both which species the academic literature considers and the way in which the authors classified interrelated variables that affect evolutionary change.

Still, they recommend that conservation biologists consider this apparent evolutionary change of pace. As plants and animals respond to human reshaping of their environments by evolving in ways that further change the ecosystem, these changes, in turn, can circle back and affect human life. View Ensia homepage

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Manmade chemicals may alter ecological processes, yet few scientists are studying the role of these chemicals in global environmental change, say a group of researchers from the U.S. and Germany in a scientific paper published today in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

In recent decades, humans have increased production of chemicals faster than we’ve made other changes to Earths land, air and water, such as increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and destroying habitat. Yet by and large, science isnt studying the ecological consequences of chemical contaminants, the researchers conclude. Less than 2 percent of funding from a major U.S. source and studies published in mainstream ecological journals and presented at an international meeting deal with the study of synthetic chemicals.

The researchers analyzed trends since the 1970s in the quantity and number of different synthetic chemicals produced using global trade value as a stand-in for the total quantity of chemicals produced.

“The rate of increase in the production and diversification of pharmaceuticals and pesticides exceeds that of most previously recognized agents of global change and matches the rate of increase in global [nitrogen] fertilizer use,” reports the team, led by Emily Bernhardt, an ecologist at Duke University. The researchers don’t report the quantity of produced chemicals entering the environment as contaminants.

Synthetic chemicals are one of the hallmarks of the modern era. Some such chemicals and their breakdown products degrade slowly. They can enter the food web and create long-lasting problems in the environment. Other chemicals, while they may break down quickly, are so ubiquitous that theres a constant risk of environmental exposure.

Despite environmental concerns about the rapid proliferation of synthetic chemicals, scientists rarely study the ecological impacts, the researchers found. Fewer than 1 percent of published ecological studies over the past 25 years mentioned synthetic chemicals according to the researchers, who looked at papers in 20 mainstream ecology journals. At an international ecological conference in 2015, 1.3 percent of presentations included mention of contaminants. And just 0.006 percent of all current funding from the U.S. National Science Foundations Division of Environmental Biology — a major source of funding for U.S. ecologists — was devoted to studying the effects of synthetic chemicals on the environment. It was a single grant worth $20,252.

The resulting “knowledge gap,” say the researchers, may make it harder to achieve sustainability goals such as ocean health and biodiversity protection. They say NSF should fund more ecological contaminants research — especially research that looks at how chemical pollution might compound the effects of other stressors, such as warming temperatures, on plants and animals. View Ensia homepage

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For public land managers, policy-makers, natural resource specialists, farmers, ranchers and others in the business of protecting and renewing the world’s diverse ecosystems, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of studies and strategies. How does a person determine which solutions will yield the best results in any given situation?

What Works in Conservation 2017, a free online book just published by University of Cambridge conservation specialists, aims to help conservation workers navigate that sea. With the guidance of an international team of experts, the book summarizes, organizes and evaluates the outcomes of specific conservation practices reported in more than 150 scientific journals as well as in unpublished reports and other literature from around the world. By providing detailed information on various practices and outcomes, it attempts to answer the questions: What worked? What looked promising, but didn’t end up making a difference in the long haul? What actually ended up doing more harm than good? And in what context?

The results are categorized by type of organism, type of threat, type of conservation action and whether the intervention is likely to be beneficial, have unknown effectiveness, or be ineffective or harmful. Each action is rated on a scale, based on the quality of evidence available, potential risks and harms, and overall effectiveness.

Take bird conservation, for example. On a global scale, agriculture is a threat to biodiversity — bird biodiversity included. What Works in Conservation assessed 38 studies of agricultural lands and found that 32 showed that growing grassy buffer zones around plowed fields reduced soil erosion and boosted bird and small mammal biodiversity. On the flip side, the report rates efforts spent cleaning bird after bird in the wake of an oil spill before releasing them back into the wild as “unlikely to be beneficial” based on studies from South Africa, Australia the U.S. and Canada that found cleaning oil-burdened birds such as penguins, plovers and guillemots in most cases did not benefit them and in some instances even lowered their chances of survival.

Other topics covered in the book include conserving amphibians, bats and farmland species; controlling freshwater invasive species; enhancing soil fertility; and protecting forest ecosystems. To learn more, read the book free online or download the PDF, click here. View Ensia homepage

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Want to solve big problems? Start small.

Seeds of Good Anthropocenes, a website created by an international team of sustainability scientists, seeks to do just that. The site showcases more than 500 initiatives from around the world that, while not widespread or well known, might contribute to a sustainable future.

The purpose of the project, according to its founders, is to provide a middle ground between gloom-and-doom reports, which may inadvertently spur feelings of powerlessness and resignation, and those that are overly optimistic and risk inciting complacency. Writing in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the founders argue that we should break through this dichotomy by looking to “seeds” — environmentally beneficial tools and techniques that are neither untested proposals nor established practices. Each seed offers an idea that helps in some way to address challenges posed by the Anthropocene, such as environmental awareness, urban sustainability and equitable decision-making.

“Seeds are initiatives (social, technological, economic, or social–ecological ways of thinking or doing) that exist, at least in prototype form, and that represent a diversity of worldviews, values, and regions, but are not currently dominant or prominent in the world,” the team wrote. The founders hope these seeds help identify values and approaches that people organically gravitate toward when facing the Anthropocene. Seeds can inspire similar projects in new areas.

The project maintains information on hundreds of seeds, which users can access via topic tags and an annotated map. Seeds came mostly from sustainability researchers and practitioners.

One highlighted seed is the Satoyama Initiative, a joint endeavor of the Japanese government and the United Nations University, which promotes traditional Japanese farming over large-scale industrial agriculture.

The traditional satoyama landscape varies land use and preserves biodiversity to balance agricultural needs with ecosystem stability. The Satoyama Initiative hopes to revitalize this agricultural approach in part by connecting with city dwellers to solicit financial donations and volunteered time.

Another seed is Project Tamar, a Brazilian marine conservation effort launched in 1980 that works with coastal communities to shield the country’s five sea turtle species from extinction.

Yet another seed, the Finland-based Robin Hood Coop, is an unusual hedge fund: Its staff work as unpaid volunteers, all members have equal voting power on major decisions, and a portion of the fund’s profits go to projects that it says benefit wider society and create “shared space, resources or means of production.”

Seeds of Good Anthropocenes is on the lookout for new initiatives to add to the database, with an online form soliciting contributors for information about additional seeds.

Since environmental challenges like climate change, species extinctions and corporate greed are systemic and interconnected, as are their solutions, it’s important to not miss the forest for the trees. But before looking too long at either, perhaps it’s time to sow the seeds — or take a lesson from what’s already been sown. View Ensia homepage

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What should we be thinking about when we think about the future of biodiversity, conservation and the environment? An international team of experts in horizon scanning, science communication and conservation recently asked that question as participants in the eighth annual Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity. The answers they came up, just published in the scientific journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution and summarized below, portend both risks and opportunities for species and ecosystems around the world.

“Our aim has been to focus attention and stimulate debate about these subjects, potentially leading to new research foci, policy developments, or business innovations,” the authors wrote in introducing their list of top trends to watch in 2017. “These responses should help facilitate better-informed forward-planning.”

Altering Coral Bacteria

Around the world, coral reefs are bleaching and dying as ocean temperatures warm beyond those tolerated by bacteria that live in partnership with the corals. Scientists are eyeing the option of replacing bacteria forced out by heat with other strains more tolerant of the new temperatures — either naturally occurring or genetically engineered. Although the practice holds promise for rescuing or resurrecting damaged reefs, there are concerns about unintended consequences such as introduction of disease or disruption of ecosystems.

Underwater Robots Meet Invasive Species

If you think getting rid of invasive species on land is a challenge, you haven’t tried doing it in the depths of the ocean. Robots that can crawl across the seafloor dispatching invaders with poisons or electric shock are being investigated as a potential tool for combating such species. The technology is now being tested to control crown-of-thorns starfish, which have devastated Great Barrier Reef corals in recent years, and invasive lionfish, which are competing with native species in the Caribbean Sea.


Electronic Noses

The technology behind electronic sensors that detect odors has advanced markedly in recent years, leading biologists to ponder applications to conservation. Possibilities include using the devices to sniff out illegally traded wildlife at checkpoints along transportation routes and to detect the presence of DNA from rare species in the environment.

Blight of the Bumblebees

We tend to think of pollinating insects as our ecological friends, but in the wrong place nonnative bees can spell trouble instead by competing with native insects, promoting reproduction in nonnative plants and potentially spreading disease. And they’re doing just that, thanks to people who transport them internationally for plant-pollination purposes. Out-of-place bumblebees are already spreading through New Zealand, Japan and southern South America, and there is concern they could do the same in Australia, Brazil, Uruguay, China, South Africa and Namibia.

Bumblebees imported to pollinate crops are a growing threat to native pollinators around the world. Photo © iStockphoto.com/bigemrg

Bumblebees imported to pollinate crops are a growing threat to native pollinators around the world. Photo © iStockphoto.com/bigemrg


Microbes Meet Agriculture

Select bacteria and fungi are emerging as potential agricultural allies for their ability to help kick back pests or stimulate growth in crops. As research advances in this area, questions are being raised about potential implications for nontarget species, ecosystems, soils and more.

Sand Trap

Sand is mined for a wide range of uses, from making concrete, glass, asphalt and electronics to reclaiming land and aiding in the extraction of fossil fuels. And with sand mining comes disruption and loss of habitat in sand sources such as quarries, rivers, lakes and oceans. As demand for sand grows, efforts are underway to develop strategies for restoring areas from which sand has been removed and to advance the use of alternative materials such as mud or recycled construction material where possible to reduce stress on existing stocks.

Sand mining is growing rapidly around the world with big consequences for creatures that inhabit shorelines, rivers, lakes, and the land overlying terrestrial sources. — and Photo © iStockphoto.com/ollo

Sand mining is growing rapidly around the world, with big consequences for creatures that inhabit shorelines, rivers, lakes and the land overlying terrestrial sources. Photo © iStockphoto.com/ollo


Trends in Fences

Fences are notorious for challenging wildlife by restricting migrations and limiting contact among populations. As political leaders in the U.S. and Europe make plans to build more border fences to limit movement of our own species across national boundaries, scientists are assessing implications for wolves, sheep, bears, birds and more.

Downside of Cleanups

Landfills have altered animal behavior, distribution and abundance around the world in a variety of ways, from increasing abundance of storks to fragmenting populations of bears. As changes in regulations cause landfills to be cleaned up, covered and closed, scientists expect the behavior of scavenging animals to change — with potential consequences for other species, ecosystems and human-animal interactions.

Well-intentioned efforts to clean up waste dumps are having unintended consequences for animal scavengers. Photo © iStockphoto.com/rudiuks

Well-intentioned efforts to clean up waste dumps are having unintended consequences for animal scavengers. Photo © iStockphoto.com/rudiuks


Ocean Air on Overdrive

Things can be rough on the open ocean — and they appear to be getting rougher, with increased average air speed, wave height, and frequency of strong winds and large waves over the past two decades. Implications for ecosystems and the species that inhabit them include disruptions to beaches, coastal vegetation and reefs; ocean-going birds and transoceanic migrants also could be affected.

Floating Wind Farms

Floating turbines hold huge promise for capturing wind energy over Earth’s oceans. With the first large floating wind farm — off the coast of Scotland — approved for development in 2016 and some 40 more in planning, it’s high time to take a look at potential implications for conservation. Possibilities include the creation of de facto marine reserves as fish cluster under the fields of floating turbines, loss of birds that fly into the turbines, entanglement of sea creatures in cables used to tether the turbines to the seafloor, and disruption of movement patterns of underwater animals.


Bionic Leaves

Plants have the renewable energy storage problem pretty well figured out: Capture photons from the sun, use them to split water into hydrogen and oxygen to make sugars, then extract the energy from the sugars when it’s needed. New “artificial leaf” technologies use sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, then feed the hydrogen to bacteria that make energy-storing alcohol — at energy conversion efficiencies approaching 10 times that of nature’s version. The technology opens the door to an exciting new approach to capturing, storing and using solar energy in locations remote from electrical grids.

Lithium-Air Batteries

The lack of dense energy storage systems is a big barrier to widespread adoption of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, which are only intermittently available, as well as to the advancement of technologies such as electric vehicles. A new kid on the energy-storage block, lithium-air batteries, can theoretically hold 10 times as much energy per volume as its conventional lithium-ion counterparts. Although scientists expect the technology to take 10 years or more to mature, when it does it could revolutionize renewable energy markets with cascading impacts for land use, water quality and more.

Better Biofuel Production

A class of enzymes known as lyctic polysaccharide monooxygenases is emerging as a potentially powerful tool for use in converting plant material to liquid fuel and industrial chemicals. By dramatically improving the speed and efficiency of conversion over conventional approaches, these enzymes could stimulate efforts to grow crops for fuel, with implications for biodiversity in the form of increased land use for this purpose, potential shifts away from fossil fuel use and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Socking Away CO2

Researchers in Iceland have come up with a promising strategy for storing carbon dioxide underground: Dissolve it in water and inject it into basaltic rocks. After two years of monitoring an experimental site, they’ve discovered the approach does a remarkable job of long-term storage, with 95 percent of the CO2 injected turning into rock. Although the process is energy- and water-intensive, there is hope it could play a role in reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and minimizing the impact of climate change on the rest of the world.



New Jobs for Blockchain

Best known for enabling a Web-based currency known as bitcoin, blockchain technology in a more generalized sense offers the ability to track transactions without the need for a centralized record keeper. As the technology matures, potential applications with implications for conservation include tracking land claims, providing a system for buying and selling power generated by distributed renewable sources, ensuring the validity of sustainability claims for products such as seafood and lumber, and uncovering illegal wildlife trade.

Wondering how last year’s projections have fared so far? Check them out here.

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Good news: more people across the globe have improved access to safe water and sanitation. Bad news: air quality is a growing problem in lower-income countries. The Population Reference Bureau’s 2016 World Population Data Sheet, released in August, offers valuable insights into not only current and projected demographic measures, but also health, energy and environment trends around the world.

The report predicts that Africa’s population will reach 2.5 billion by 2050, accounting for 54 percent of the total world population growth. However, Asia will remain the most heavily populated region with a gain of nearly 900 million (36 percent of global population growth), and India will replace China as the nation with the most people. The number of people in the Americas is slated to rise by only 223 million, and Europe will experience a slight decline of 12 million.

Significant to managing health and environmental concerns, the report projects that the combined population of the world’s least developed countries will double by 2050 to 1.9 billion. But these people are on the move, and migration could have an unpredictable impact on regional population estimates and resource management. Africa, for example, is expected to more than double in population by 2050 but is also expected to lose more people to emigration than it gains from immigration. Europe is currently absorbing many of these migrants. As a result, European nations may not see the anticipated population decline and could face increased environmental and health challenges.

Air quality is becoming a more pressing issue as global population increases, particularly in less developed regions. According to the report, the highest national-level concentrations of fine particles of airborne dust, dirt and soot occur in middle-income nations like China and Bangladesh, where pollution control measures are not keeping up with industrial growth. Although particulate air pollution is dropping in higher income countries, it still exceeds World Health Organization target levels.

A focus on water over the past 25 years has improved access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation in many parts of the world. The data sheet reports that 91 percent of the global population now has piped water available close to home. Progress in sanitation is also reported; however, more than 2.4 billion people still lack access to basic sanitation services.

The report paints a fascinating country-by-country picture of carbon emissions, access to electricity and use of renewable energy. Annual carbon emissions increased 60 percent globally between 1992 and 2013, with individual country changes ranging from a 280 percent increase in China to a 57 percent reduction in Ukraine. The United States held increases to under 6 percent, yet remains second only to China in total carbon emissions. Access to electricity varied from 100 percent in more developed countries to less than 10 percent in some of the least developed countries. Percent of energy coming from renewables spanned from zero to 97 with a global average of 18 percent. Country breakdowns are also presented for several other demographic, health and environmental metrics, including life expectancy at birth and percent of land under protected status.

The 2016 World Population Data Sheet is accessible in both print and interactive digital formats for further exploration of the balance between providing for human needs and managing the natural resources on which people depend. View Ensia homepage

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Self-driving taxis, parking lots replaced by parks, quiet freeways, clean air, Wi-Fi-enabled traffic control, light rail trains zipping from one end of town to another — sounds like the stuff of science fiction. But experts at McKinsey & Company and Bloomberg New Energy Finance argue that these technologies aren’t so far-fetched in some urban areas, given today’s market trends. Their new report, An Integrated Perspective on the Future of Mobility, paints a picture of what transportation could look like in leading-edge cities 15, 20, 30 years from now that should be of great interest to urban planners, public officials and professionals in the digital technology, communication, environmental and automotive industries — along with the estimated 500 million people who will be directly affected.

This analysis suggests that several key trends can help predict future transportation patterns: a global shift toward using more renewable energy and reducing air pollution, a “decentralized” or more flexible and accessible electrical grid, and advances in internet and digital communication technologies. It foresees spikes in electric vehicle sales and dips in demand for internal combustion engines, and predicts a slide in vehicle ownership as cities invest in better public transit and as on-demand ride-hailing services like Uber continue to grow.

The projection identifies three kinds of cities most ravenous for shared transportation, electric vehicles, refreshed public transit and self-driven cars: places like Delhi and Istanbul, which are low-income and densely populated and have mounting urbanization and air pollution; cities with large suburban sprawl, such as Sydney, Houston and Los Angeles; and high-income metropolises such as Singapore, London and Shanghai that demand a competitive variety of convenient mobility options. It then goes on to suggest how each type can successfully transition to a more sustainable transportation system.

Though it emphasizes positive business models for how different city types can best incorporate these trends, this study also mentions how they can go south. For example, in Los Angeles, where people commute into the city and pay for parking, self-driving vehicles might become more common. The upside to that is that more people like the elderly, the blind and children, would be able to access easy and ideally safe transportation. The downside? Lower-emission options such as ride sharing and cycling might fall by the wayside, and commuters might send their empty vehicles long distances to find cheaper parking.

The report suggests that, if done right, the world could reap big environmental and economic benefits from the urban mobility transition. What do you think? Download the full white paper here. View Ensia homepage

person making online purchase  

Reducing the carbon footprint of what we buy isn’t easy, but the opportunity for impact is substantial: In the United States, producing and delivering consumer purchases releases twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as home energy use and personal travel. By gathering and sharing information on carbon emissions associated with their products, companies can make environmentally friendly choices easier for consumers and boost their own reputations as planet-friendly businesses.

Advances in online technology provide effective and inexpensive opportunities to do this, according to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

To explore strategies for sharing carbon footprint information and evaluate the impact of offering consumers carbon offset options, NREL researchers designed a series of experiments focused on four industries — online retailing, ride sharing, video streaming and short-term lodging.

Using crowdsourced online survey services, they reproduced the online interfaces of actual companies to track the decision process of participants offered green choices. Follow-up questions explored participants’ reactions to these options. Their findings demonstrate that providing green choices can lower their overall carbon footprints and improve customer satisfaction.

Researchers reproduced the online interface of a major U.S. online retailer, Amazon, to test carbon-reducing strategies in online retailing. Amazon Prime members receive free two-day shipping, but can also select free no-rush shipping and earn a US$1 credit. In one experiment, the researchers asked participants how they would respond if they were given a chance to accept carbon offsets instead of the credit, and how their opinion of Amazon would change if the company offered carbon neutral no-rush shipping. Researchers found that green shipping was as popular as the credit and improved Amazon’s environmental image. In addition, since the carbon offsets were generally less expensive than the dollar credit, offering this service to customers could save the company money.

A second experiment gave customers the option to add carbon offsets for shipping to their bills, with the cost of this offset varying with the product and the shipping option selected. When adding the carbon credit was the default, 88.2 percent of customers chose to do so. When the carbon credit was not the default option, 40 percent of customers still chose to add it.

The researchers used Uber as a model system for exploring the potential for carbon offsets in the ride-share industry. The experiment was similar to that conducted using the Amazon interface, providing customers an option to add the cost of carbon offsets to their bill. The cost of the offset was varied between US$0.02 and US$0.20 per trip based on estimated costs of carbon of US$6/metric ton (1.1 tons) and US$50/metric ton (1.1 tons) and assuming a 10-mile (16-kilometer) trip and the 2012 U.S. average fuel economy for light-duty vehicles. Given the scenario of a 10-mile (16-kilometer) trip every weekday for a year, participants were then asked if they would be willing to add the cost of carbon offsets to their bill for every ride. Depending on the carbon price, this would increase the total cost by either US$5.95 or US$49.58. Results showed close to three-quarters of customers were willing to add the offset for a single trip at either carbon price and to offset emissions associated with all of their Uber trips when the total yearly cost was US$5.95. Even when the cost for all future trips was high, half of all participants remained willing to purchase offsets.

For video streaming the research team used the model of Netflix. Content can be streamed in standard, high or ultrahigh definition — with the carbon footprint increasing with increased definition. Subscribers may not realize that higher definition streaming isn’t necessary for all content. The researchers provided information on the carbon footprints of the three streaming options to the Netflix user and found that participants tended to choose a lower resolution stream. Not only that, but 42 percent of participants said they would allow Netflix to automatically provide the least carbon-intensive streaming resolution, adjusting the definition level to the needs of the type of video being streamed. “This response could represent an opportunity for Netflix to reduce operating costs, lower its corporate environmental footprint and improve customer satisfaction with one simple innovation,” the researchers noted.

In the realm of short-term lodging, the researchers used the example of Airbnb, a company that connects customers with hosts who offer space in their homes as an alternative to hotels. The researchers found that, on average, potential Airbnb hosts could expect to receive just under US$7 more per booking if they qualify as providing an energy-efficient rental. However, when participants were given the option to add between US$0.50 and US$3.00 to their bills to make their stays carbon neutral, less than 13 percent indicated that they would be willing to purchase these carbon offsets.

The researchers noted that their results support two basic “design principles” for initiatives aimed at helping consumers reduce their carbon emissions: provide credible information at the point of decision and keep things simple.

“These experiments indicate significant untapped potential for firms to reduce the climate impact of their product chains and improve customer satisfaction at very low or even negative cost,” the researchers concluded, adding, “Such opportunities certainly exist in other industries as well.” View Ensia homepage



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What covers up to 600,000 square kilometers (230,000 square miles) of Earth’s surface, provides benefits worth an estimated US$570 billion or more each year, and is rapidly being lost due to human activity?

If you have not a clue, you’re far from alone. Scientists who study the underwater feature known as a seagrass meadow call it a “marginalized ecosystem” that ranks with coral reefs and mangrove swamps as among the most endangered marine habitats but is “often overlooked, regarded as merely an innocuous feature of the ocean.”

And they’re hoping that will change: The World Seagrass Association has released a statement urging the world’s conservation leaders to protect seagrass meadows from human harm through policies, education and action.

“These important ecosystems can no longer be ignored on the conservation agenda,” the statement says. “Seagrass loss should not be an option.”

Seagrasses are flowering plants that evolved from land-based counterparts millions of years ago. Vast swaths stretch along coastlines around the world, sheltering countless forms of marine life, from manatees and turtles to seahorses, shrimp and fish. And they provide a spectrum of services to humans, including sequestering millions of metric tons of carbon each year, protecting shorelines, providing nurseries for marine life, contributing to global food security, supporting biodiversity and keeping ocean water clean.

But at the same time, humans are impairing their ability to do so through a perfect storm of onslaughts: runoff from cities, factories and farms; port construction and dredging; and food production activities such as trawling and aquaculture. All told, the Ocean Health Index estimates the planet has lost more than one-quarter of all seagrass meadows since 1900. And as human population booms and coastlines develop, the destruction is accelerating — with particularly heavy losses being documented in such diverse settings as Singapore, Canada, the Caribbean and the British Isles.

Efforts by folks already in the know, such as reducing nutrients flowing from wastewater treatment plants and cropland, promoting sustainable fisheries, and replanting demolished meadows, have made some inroads into reducing the rate of decline. By issuing the latest statement, scientists hope the rest of us will not only become aware of seagrass ecosystems, but do our part to protect them, too. View Ensia homepage

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For many businesses, sustainability is a nice idea that looks better on paper than in practice. Yet, research shows that sustainability doesn’t just sound good — it’s smart, and it works. Sustainable Brands has compiled a list of 22 research studies that show sustainable practices lead to long-term benefits. The studies cover multiple benefits, from global reach and stock market value to brand trust and product sustainability. For example:

  • Project ROI, an initiative created in partnership with billion-dollar corporations Verizon and Campbell, the research firm IO Sustainability, and Babson College, drew from hundreds of research studies to quantify the benefits of strong sustainability programs. When done right, the project concluded, sustainable initiatives can increase sale revenue by up to 20 percent, increase market value by nearly 10 percent, lead to lower investment risk and cut employee turnover rates in half.
  • Sustainability can boost profits through the little actions employees take on a routine basis. Research shows that WeSpire Sustainability, an online employee engagement project based on behavioral science, has helped MGM Resorts save about US$5 million annually by engaging nearly a third of its employees (19,500 people) in a social media platform that guides green actions related to waste, water, fuel, emissions and energy. The site offers tips such as taking the stairs, unplugging your cellphone after it’s fully charged and using energy-efficient office equipment. Participants rack up points, compare their progress to other co-workers, exchange ideas and learn about the impacts that these small actions have on the environment. The program suggests that companies can save millions by integrating sustainable practices across departments, committing to meet environmental regulations and targets, and boosting the energy efficiency of everyday workplace functions.
  • As globalization strengthens communication across the world, relationships with local communities are more important than ever for multinational corporations to achieve success, according to business, international relations and public policy scholar Witold Henisz. His book, Corporate Diplomacy: Building Reputations and Relationships with External Stakeholders, describes studies documenting the trials and failures of multinational companies that alienated themselves from local realities and concerns. More importantly, Henisz presents solutions that real companies have found to develop trust, collaboration and respectful communication among communities with differing social, political and cultural perspectives or histories of colonization, for example. Instead of perceiving external stakeholders as “external,” he argues, entities such as government officials, locally employed workers, legislators and NGOs should be an integrated part of decision-making. In the long term, developing a partnership with local populations leads not only to positive, long-term profits for business but also to work that more closely aligns with global sustainability goals.

Like to learn more about links between positive ROI and corporate sustainability? Check out all 22 studies showcased by Sustainable Brands here. View Ensia homepage

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Wind energy is soaring around the world, thanks to technology advances and energy policies that have reduced its cost. And things are only going to get better — with prices dropping substantially by mid-century, according to a survey of 163 of the world’s leading wind energy experts.

The results, published in the journal Nature Energy, suggest that the cost of electricity from wind could drop by 24–30 percent by 2030 relative to 2014 prices, and by 35–41 percent by 2050.

The key driver of this price drop? Bigger, more efficient turbines, according to the experts. Taller turbines with larger rotors make it possible for turbines to better harness stronger winds, generating more power.

Global wind power capacity more than quadrupled between 2006 and 2015. Over 97 percent of this came from onshore wind, but offshore wind capacity has also been increasing, especially in Europe. Whether or not wind energy continues to play an important role in the future will rest squarely on its costs. So researchers have tried in the past to predict wind energy costs by looking at historical data and trends, then extrapolating into the future.

Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory instead conducted what’s called an “expert elicitation” survey. These carefully designed surveys are designed to eliminate bias and are often considered the best tools to develop estimates of unknown or uncertain quantities.

The researchers asked experts about three wind power applications: onshore wind, fixed-bottom offshore wind and floating offshore wind. The results indicate that onshore wind should remain cheaper than offshore. But the actual cost of offshore wind will drop more by 2050 than onshore, which makes sense since offshore wind is a relatively immature technology, hence there’s more room for improvements.

The reasons for dropping prices varied by type of wind installation. For all types, one key factor was larger turbines with wider rotors, which increase the amount of energy a project actually generates. Another common reason was lower upfront capital costs and, for offshore wind, lower financing cost. View Ensia homepage

Republished with permission from Conservation. View the original article here.

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Agroforestry — integrating trees into cropland or pastureland — is often discussed as a promising strategy for helping to ease the threat of climate change because trees are particularly good at sucking carbon dioxide from the air and socking it away for the long term. However, most global and regional calculations of carbon capture and storage, including those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ignore farm forests. That could change, thanks to a new study published in Scientific Reports that takes a look at trees on agricultural land and quantifies the powerful role they play in sequestering carbon.

Using estimates of global farmland tree cover derived from remote sensing observations, a team of researchers from Asia, Africa and Europe calculated the amount of carbon captured and stored by trees growing on farmland. When carbon stored by these trees was included, total carbon storage for agricultural land measured more than four times higher than current IPCC default values. “These results show that existing tree cover — thus far ignored in most global and regional calculations — makes a major contribution to the carbon pool on agricultural lands,” the researchers wrote.

The study found that as the world’s forest resources decline, tree cover on agricultural land is expanding. Analysis of the remote sensing results revealed that 43 percent of the world’s agricultural land was forested in 2010, a 2 percent increase over the previous 10 years. Looking at regional patterns in the distribution of agricultural tree cover, the researchers found high percentages of tree cover occurring in humid regions such as Southeast Asia, Central America, eastern South America and central and coastal Africa. Tree cover was moderate in the majority of agricultural areas in South Asia, sub-humid Africa, Central and Western Europe, Amazonian South America and Midwestern North America. Agricultural areas with low tree cover included Southwest Australia, Eastern China, the northern prairies of North America, and the southern border of the Sahara.

Heavily populated areas tended to have less tree cover, despite their climate, so regional variations and trends were also investigated. This analysis revealed many areas where higher tree cover density and carbon storage are possible. Encouraging agroforestry in these regions through policy and incentives, the researchers noted, could be an “achievable and relatively fast” path to increasing greenhouse gas absorption.

The researchers also examined the amount of carbon stored on agricultural land in individual countries and found insightful differences. Places where forests are regarded as nationally important, for example Brazil or Indonesia, have high and increasing carbon storage levels on agricultural land. In Brazil, some of the increase may stem from policy initiatives and the adoption of agroforestry practices. Argentina, on the other hand, has experienced substantial loss of carbon capture and storage, most likely due to widespread adoption of large scale mechanized soy cultivation over the past decade. The report notes that more research is necessary to understand what is driving these trends so effective policies and market incentives can be developed to both reduce forest conversion and encourage more trees on farmland.

In addition to being an efficient strategy to offset carbon losses due to deforestation, the researchers noted that integrating trees into the agricultural landscape also benefits small farmers around the globe by helping to optimize soil moisture, boosting soil nitrogen, and in general encouraging a more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy and sustainable use of land.

“In summary,” they conclude, “our analyses highlight that agroforestry, and tree cover on agricultural land in general, has clear potential to contribute to climate change mitigation while providing an array of adaptation benefits.” View Ensia homepage

UPDATED 09.22.16: The journal citation was corrected to Scientific Reports.

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