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Green Planet

It is time to fix the broken nitrogen cycle

MD Staff

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From breathtaking advances in synthetic biology to pitfalls in climate adaptation, UN Environment’s latest Frontiers report, launched today, explores the biggest emerging environmental issues that will have profound effects on our society, economy and ecosystems, along with some exciting and novel solutions.

By scanning the technological and environmental horizons, the report identifies five major topics:
Synthetic biology, modern biotechnology that combines science and engineering to manufacture and modify genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems.
Ecological connectivity – the linking and bridging of fragmented habitats into a connected landscape to prevent species extinctions.
Permafrost peatlands the ground in the northern hemisphere that remains permanently frozen and holds approximately half of the world’s soil organic carbon, threatened by rising temperatures in the Arctic.
Nitrogen pollution – the disturbance of ecosystems, human health and economies by massively altering of the global nitrogen cycle through human activity.
Maladaptation to climate change – the unintended increases in climate-related damages or diminished welfare of sustainable adaptation efforts.

“The issues examined in Frontiers should serve as a reminder that, whenever we interfere with nature – whether at the global scale or the molecular level – we risk creating long-lasting impacts on our planetary home, “Joyce Musya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment said in the foreword to the report. “But by acting with foresight and by working together, we can stay ahead of these issues and craft solutions that will serve us all, for generations to come.”

Synthetic Biology: Re-engineering the environment

The report lays out the opportunities and challenges that synthetic biology – or the reengineering of our natural biology – holds for our society, zeroing in on how the genetic manipulation of living organisms to acquire new functions that otherwise do not exist in nature can serve human needs.

CRISPR technology, which enables scientists to cut out a chosen DNA segment and replace it with an entirely new DNA strand, which can alter the characteristics of an organism. With this new DNA, the organism can be released into the wild to mate and expand the appearance of these modified genes in our environment. This might be used to render a species immune to certain diseases or to inhibit the reproduction of invasive species.

The strategies to release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment have raised valid concerns about the potential far-reaching impacts and unintended consequences. This requires multifaceted societal debate because of its power to modify, suppress or replace the entire population of the target species, bypassing the fundamental principles of evolution.

Ecological Connectivity: A bridge to preserving biodiversity

Large-scale industrialization has caused widespread fragmentation of natural landscapes around the globe. Habitats that were once continuous are now compartmentalized and isolated, causing a spiralling decline of some species as they can no longer disperse to find food or mates.

“A consequence of the segmentation of natural landscapes is that mammals and other species are moving less than half the distance they once did,” the report notes. “This limited ability to migrate, disperse, mate, feed and thrive means that wild animals are cornered into a situation where the threat of extinction looms larger.”

Permafrost Peatlands: Losing ground in a warming world

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average and scientists are increasingly concerned at the accelerating rate of permafrost thaw. Permafrost is so expansive that it underlies 25% of the northern terrestrial hemisphere, and it holds titanic volumes of greenhouse gases locked in its peatlands – all which could potentially be released as the ground defrosts. 

Permafrost thaw not only has direct impacts on ecology and infrastructure in local regions, it could set in motion an uncontrollable snowball effect: as carbon is released from the thawing peat and heats the atmosphere, thus worsening climate change ad infinitum.

Research is underway, but at present, too little is known about the precise location of permafrost peatlands, how they’re changing, and what will happen to the atmosphere if they all would thaw.

The Nitrogen Fix: From nitrogen cycle pollution to nitrogen circular economy

Nitrogen is essential for life, and an extremely abundant element in the Earth’s atmosphere. In the form of the N2 molecule, nitrogen is harmless, making up 78 per cent of every breath we take.

Growing demand on the livestock, agriculture, transport, industry and energy sector has led to a sharp growth of the levels of reactive nitrogen – ammonia, nitrate, nitric oxide (NO), nitrous oxide (N2O) – in our ecosystems,

Excess nitrogen pollution has tremendous consequences on humans and the environment. In the form of nitrous oxide, for example, it is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, in addition to the effects of various nitrogen compounds on air quality and the ozone layer.

“Altogether, humans are producing a cocktail of reactive nitrogen that threatens health, climate and ecosystems, making nitrogen one of the most important pollution issues facing humanity,” the report warns. “Yet the scale of the problem remains largely unknown and unacknowledged outside scientific circles.”

Maladaptation to Climate Change: Avoiding pitfalls on the evolvability pathway

In a rapidly changing climate reality, strategies for adaptation need to increase human and ecosystem resilience on a global scale, while avoiding short-term fixes that may only have local benefits.

In its final chapter, the report explores the various ways in which adaptation can go wrong, from processes that do not work to adaptive actions that damage resources, narrow future options, compound the problem faced by vulnerable populations, or pass on responsibility for solutions to future generations.

It delves into the key discussions about what exactly constitutes maladaptation in relation to the objective of keeping global temperatures below 1.5°C and offers guidance on how to implement responsible adaptation strategies.

 “Evidence indicates that maladaptation can be avoided by evaluating all costs and benefits, including co-benefits, for all groups in society, and by being explicit about who the winners and losers will be, and how the burdens could be better shared.”

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Tiger Conservation in South and Southeast Asia and The Indian Experience

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Every year 29th July is being celebrated as Tiger Day since 2010 when thirteen tiger range countries, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam adopted the Global Tiger Recovery Program  in St. Petersburg, Russia in November 2010 to double the number of wild tigers from about 3,200 to more than 7,000 by 2022. Earlier in the same year Governments from across Asia’s tiger range countries took initiatives to save wild tigers from extinction and total protection of critical tiger habitats on January in 1st Asian Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation at Hua Hin, Thailand.

Degradation in Tiger Population in Southeast Asia

Maximum tigers were roaming on those areas of Asia where human beings are now densely populated. Presently over one-third of tiger conservation sites in the world are still under the risk and the majority of those areas are located in Southeast Asia. Bhutan is the home to the highest altitude tigers in the world and Indonesian island of Sumatra is one of the last places on earth where tigers, elephants and orangutans coexist in the wild. Sunderban mangrove area of India and Bangladesh is the habitat of largest number of wild Royal Bengal tigers. One hundred years ago, there were 100,000 wild tigers in the nature but in 2010 as few as only 3,200 wild tigers remained. The sole cause of declination in tiger population is human activity and nearly 97% has been extinct due to rampant poaching and habitat loss. The borders of India-Nepal, Indonesia-China and Russia-China are very well known hot spots for trans-boundary smuggling of tiger body parts.

Indian Tiger Protection Laws and National Tiger Conservation Authority

The main legislative action was undertaken by then Indian government through the insertion of the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act, 2006 which was also known as ‘Tiger Amendment’. This Amendment of 2006 introduced some important statutory and administrative steps including National Tiger Conservation Authority (Section 38L), Tiger and Other Endangered Species Crime Control Bureau (Section 38Y), Tiger Conservation Plan (Section 38V) and Tiger Conservation Foundation (Section 38 X). This Amendment was made on the recommendation of Tiger Task Force (TTF) consisting of biologists, social scientists, activists and forest officers across the country constituted by then Prime Minister in July 2005 on the backdrop of vanishing of tigers by rampant killing and poaching. Since its inception in 2006, National Tiger Conservation Authority has worked tremendously and till now declared nearly 50 protected areas as Tiger Reserves having critical tiger habitats with the consultation of State Governments. Though few Tiger Reserves were established earlier after launching of Project Tiger during 1973 but those reserves have got the statutory status (Section 38V) after this Amendment. Central Government notified many bye laws for better functioning of National Tiger Conservation Authority and those are The National Tiger Conservation Authority (Qualifications and Experience of Experts or Professional Members) Rules, 2006; The National Tiger Conservation Authority (Salaries, Allowances and other Conditions of Appointment) Rules, 2006; The Tiger Conservation Authority Fund (Regulation) Guidelines, 2007; The National Tiger Conservation Authority (Tiger Conservation Foundation) Guidelines, 2007; The National Tiger Conservation Authority (Annual Reports and Annual Statement of Accounts) Rules, 2007; The National Tiger Conservation Authority (Recruitment and Conditions of Service of Officers and Other Employees) Rules, 2007 and The National Tiger Conservation Authority (Normative Standard for Tourism activities and Project Tiger) Guidelines, 2012. The Act has played nicely the federal features of Indian government as ‘wild animals’ are subject of State as well as Union.

Indian legal framework for wild animal protection

There is an elaborated interpretation of Indian Constitution after 42nd Amendment in 1976 through which protection of wild animals came under the Directive Principles of State Policies (Article 48A) and Fundamental Duties (Article 51A(g)) of citizen. This Amendment also brought the subject protection of wild animals within the legislative approach of States as well as Centre. In 1992, the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments widened the legislative power on forestry and ecological aspects to local governments of panchayats and municipalities.  The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 instituted office of Director of Wildlife Preservation [Section 3(a)], Asst. Director of wildlife preservation [Section 3(b)] and Wildlife Advisory Board [Section 6] at central level and Chief Wildlife Wardens [Section 4 (a)] and Wildlife Wardens [Section 4 (b)] at State level. After the Amendment of 1991, Central Zoo Authority [Section 38A] came into force to regulate all zoos in the country and National Board for Wildlife [Section 5A] at State level. The Amendment of 2003 introduced National Board for Wildlife [Section 5A] and a Standing Committee of the National Board [Section 5B] and for state level Honorary Wildlife Wardens [Section 4 (bb)], State Board Wildlife [Section 6], Advisory Committee [Section 33 B], Conservation Reserve Management Committee [Section 36 B] and Community Reserve Management Committee [Section 36 D]. There are several other administrative authorities constituted for protection of tigers and wild animals directly or indirectly. In 1962 the Animal Welfare Board of India was established under Ministry of Environment and Forests as per provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 and National Biodiversity Authority was established through the provision of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 to regulate, transfer and use of diversified biological resources at the national level. The National Afforestation and Eco-Development Board, was set up in 1992 for promoting afforestation, tree plantation, ecological restoration and eco-development activities.

Collective Initiatives by Member Countries

Countries like India, Nepal and Russia have shown that tiger recovery is possible but other governments in Southeast Asia are facing the challenges in poaching and man-tiger conflicts. In November 2009, representatives from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Secretariat, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Customs Organization (WCO) and the World Bank (IBRD) decided in Vienna to form the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) to jointly move forward in a coordinated manner with mandates in law enforcement and criminal justice to prevent and combat illegal trade in wild animals and plants. Finally the Consortium was launched by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in November 2010 during the International Tiger Forum held in St. Petersburg, Russian Federation. ICCWC is the first initiative where these five international agencies cooperate together towards crimes against animals, birds and fish, as well as timber and non-timber forest products to achieve a common goal of delivering multi-agency support to affected countries. In 2014, Nepal became the first country to achieve a full year of zero poaching for three of the world’s most iconic species –tiger, rhino and elephant. Last year Indian Prime Minister on the event of global tiger day declared that India is the safest habitat for tigers in the world and having largest numbers of wild tigers in the nature. India along with other participant countries decided to double their tiger population within 2020 at the St. Petersburg Tiger Summit, Russia in 2010 and as per recent press release of National Tiger Conservation Authority, since 2006, the 33% rise in tiger numbers is the highest ever recorded between cycles which stood at 21% between 2006 to 2010 and 30% between 2010 and 2014.

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Has CCS Really Got Us Covered?

Mehre Taban

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It is widely said and preached that one is responsible for one’s actions, but little do we pay attention to our actions towards our atmosphere. To cut it short, the ever-increasing temperature, scorching heat from the Sun and unbearable summers are all due to us-the humans. It may come to us as a shock, but it is the truth. Hotter days are the consequence of global warming. Global warming is the unusual rapid increase in the average temperature of earth. The Earth is getting hotter and hotter day by day due to human activities. Human inventions which involve burning fossil fuels(coal, oil, and natural gas) for industrial and domestic purposes is one of the major causes of global warming as combustion of these release methane, nitrogen oxides, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, etc.  but most importantly carbon dioxide (CO2).

Even though carbon dioxide is a natural greenhouse gas which helps sunlight reach the Earth but it also prevents some of the heat from radiating back into space but this is a natural process to keep the Earth’s temperature within limit otherwise we would have frozen to death. But the main concern here is that we are adding extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by combustion of fossil fuels which is causing great problems to deal with. Scientists are burning the midnight oil to address this pressing issue and save our planet. They have come up with ways to prevent carbon emissions by using carbon-free devices and if not prevent then at least with ways to get rid of this extra carbon dioxide that we have added and continue to add in the environment.

One of the ways that lets 90% of the carbon dioxide to get rid of is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This technique collects the carbon dioxide from the emission sources, transports it to a storage location -underground and/or underwater and “dumps” it there. The method of Carbon Capturing has been in use for many years or to be precise for decades to get speedy recovery of oil and gas in industries, but it is only now that scientists have thought it to use for environmental reasons.

Carbon Capturing is done using three ways. All of them prevent up to 90% of the carbon dioxide from making the atmosphere toxic. One of the ways is ‘post-combustion capturing’ which lets us capture carbon dioxide after the fossil fuels are burnt. In the technique, a ‘filter’ can be added to the power-plant and the job is done. It allows us to modify the old plants with low expense. The second method is ‘pre-combustion capturing’ in which the carbon is collected before the fuel is burned. Unfortunately, this method is costly because new plants must be employed. The last and third method is ‘oxy-combustion capturing’ which separates carbon dioxide form steam after the fuel has been burnt in oxygen.

After the carbon capturing process comes the transportation step. Carbon dioxide can be transported in three states-solid, liquid, and gaseous. Solid CO2also known as dry ice, is very hazardous and sometimes fatal so it is very dangerous to transport, it would require huge manpower and it is also not very much friendly monetarily. So, transporting carbon dioxide in solid state is not feasible.  It is also possible to transport carbon dioxide in liquid state through ships and tankers butliquid carbon dioxideneeds low pressure and a constant low temperature, so cargo tankers or ships must be both pressurized and refrigerated. For that special mechanisms ought to be installed which is again not very pocket friendly but still in use as it does not go very hard on budget. The last option is to transport it in gaseous form. This is the best possible option and widely in use because in gaseous form, carbon dioxide is transported through pipelines which can be installed anywhere- underground or underwater (on sea-beds). A compressor compresses the gas all the way through the pipeline and moves it forward. Occasionally, a pipeline will have compressors after a measured distance to keep the gas moving and avoid any interruption. The CO2 must be free of any impurities and moisture or else, it can corrode the pipes. But pipelines built from stainless steel are said to have a low risk of corrosion.

As much as this method of transportation sounds easy and feasible, it is not. The reason being that this is a new method and there is not much data regarding this. There have not yet been many accidents due to mishandling or pipe leakage but the ones that occurred have gone without much harm. If there is leakage of carbon dioxide at a place, a condition called asphyxiation is common. It is shortness of breath due to lack of oxygen and excess of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a colorless and odorless gas. To avoid accidents due to leakage one thing that can be done is to add color and odor to the gas before transporting.

The last step in this method is storing the carbon dioxide. There are three possibilities to store carbon dioxide- in deep geological formations, underwater and in the form of mineral carbonates.

Considering storing carbon dioxide as mineral carbonates which is done by reacting CO2 with naturally occurring magnesium and calcium to form their respective carbonates which are very stable so there is no possibility of re-formation of carbon dioxide but this is a very slow process under normal conditions. It requires high temperature and pressure along with some catalyst. Once it is done then we are good to go.

The second option of storing it under water also seems quite promising but the environmental effects are believed to be very terrible. The excess carbon dioxide in the water reacts with water to form carbonic acid which leads to acidification of oceans. Also, the extra carbon dioxide in the water acts as asphyxiant and breathing becomes difficult for marine organisms. The last option is to store it underground. Carbon dioxide is stored in deep geological formations known as geological sequestration. In this technique, carbon dioxide is converted to ‘supercritical carbon dioxide’ which is a runny liquid. It is then injected into sedimentary rocks and the runny liquid then seeps into them underground. Various physical and geochemical mechanisms prevent carbon dioxide from escaping.

Although ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ technique seems like a miracle solution, but it is important to keep in mind that it is not a permanent solution. It is just a way to get rid off already present carbon dioxide and we surely should not emit more and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere thinking that CCS has got it all covered. It should be given keen intention that we should still come up with ways and devices with little or no carbon emission. Fossil fuels should not be used anymore. Rather than wasting time and money on coming up with ways to get rid of carbon dioxide being emitted, our goal should be to get invested in replacing fossil fuels with alternatives which has less adverse effects to the environment.

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Green Planet

Organic Farming and Climate Change

Alek Karci Kurniawan

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In early 2019, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, published an interesting study related to the effects of organic agriculture on the Earth’s climate. Stefan Wirsenius, Professor of environmental sciences who wrote the study concluded that organic food production has a worse impact on the climate as compared to conventional farming methods. Summary of the thesis published in Ekologisk news mat ärsämreförklimatet by chalmers. seon 8th January, 2019.

The approach is based on the argument that organic food requires a larger area of ​​land, so it contributes more to deforestation. The data source was statistics on total production in Sweden — yields per hectare for organic versus conventional agriculture for 2013-2015.

Findings in Sweden showed that yields from organic foodper hectare were much lower – mainly because there was no fertilizer used. Thus, a much larger area of ​​land was needed to produce organic food with the same amount of that produced by conventional method.

Until now, it is still a problem formulation for environmental experts and observers regarding what systems are suitable for developing sustainable global agriculture. It is due to the number of human populations continues to grow as a geometric progression, while the growth of food resources for consumption moves slowly following the arithmetical count.

Is it true that the organic farming system is no more sustainable than conventional farming system? Certainly it is not enough to conclude from one sample in an area. Even the different methods used in a system that want to be applied in the same area can show different results.

Simply put, the essence of organic farming emphasizes locality or the use of surrounding resources to grow plants – not dependent on industrial chemicals that help agricultural production. Then the problem is that there are certainly different and highly diverse local resources in each region.

There are areas with local resources that are sufficient to replace chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, there are also areas with very little local resources. It is not that simple, every local resource available must further be tested for its compatibility with local land. Whether or not organic farming is successful depends on it.

Several things needed are water resistance testing, comparison of soil texture, observation of the development of land ecosystems, and how toself-produce vegetable extracts from local resources for pest repellant.

December 2018 ago, in an activity covering the organic rice harvest in Sumpur Kudus Sub-District, Sijunjung Regency, West Sumatra, Indonesia, I found facts that were contrary to the Wirsenius Thesis that we discussed earlier. Through organic farming system, farmers in Sumpur Kudus could produce 7.7 tons of rice per hectare. Previously, through fertilization and spraying methods, farmers in Sumpur Kudus produced 4 tons of rice per hectare. Their production costs were reduced and organic rice could be sold at a higher value than the price of common rice.

These results were obtained after conducting a compatibility test between the local resources and local land. A group of organic rice farmers in Sumpur Kudus found that unburnt straw was the most powerful material in maintaining water sustainability for their rice fields. Meanwhile, the highest nutrient content was found in a mixture of rice mud with cow dung. To repel pests, they replaced pesticides with papaya leaf extract.

Rice is only one example of various types of plants that can be applied to organic farming system. But the point is whether local resources are sufficient and suitable to support the agriculture. We can get different yields in one hectare of land if we use different local materials to support agriculture.

Another experience was found by Verena Seufert and Navin Ramankutty, both of whom are geography professors from the University of British Columbia. They conducted a study on the application of organic agriculture in North America, Europe and India. In an article entitled “Organic Farming Matters, Just Not In The Way You Think”, the researchers found that organic farming was up to 35% more profitable than conventional farming. In a number of regions, organic agriculture provides more rural employment opportunities because organic management is more labor intensive than conventional practice. In terms of health, the biggest advantage is that organic system can reduce exposure to toxic agrochemicals.

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