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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

Green Planet

Dying Wildlife on a Warming Planet

Meena Miriam Yust

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad M. Khan

The emaciated polar bear, a sorry remnant of magnificence, raiding garbage cans in an iconic, even infamous photo, is one consequence of global warming.  As the September (2019) National Geographic cover story displays depressingly, Arctic ice collected over winter is sparser, thinner, and now disappears completely during summer in parts of Canada.  If the effects of global warming are staring us in the face, then only the woefully or willfully ignorant – like Trump – can ignore them.  

One more aspect of warming on Arctic ice has been reported recently.  As we know, two-thirds of an iceberg lies under water.  As sea water warms, melt increases and scientists have made measurements to discover that submerged parts of icebergs and glaciers entering the sea are melting significantly more than was previously believed, contributing to rising sea levels.

Researchers are warning that permafrost collapse in the Arctic is releasing nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon dioxide.  The store is vast: nearly 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon lies trapped in the frozen soils of the permafrost region as a result of decaying organic matter over millennia.  That is almost double the quantity in the atmosphere.

The environmental costs of global warming appear in yet other unexpected ways.  A new paper in Science reports the threat to coral reef reproduction.  Free-spawning marine species synchronize spawning as a way to ensure reproduction.  In this way the gametes developed are so numerous that some escape their predators, ensuring species survival.  Global warming is now affecting this reproductive synchrony, threatening coral reef recovery.

Rising ocean temperatures impact fish, plankton and crustaceans, in turn affecting the creatures that feed on them.  So now sea birds, like the puffin, are struggling to stay alive.  These are striking birds with black and white plumage, bright orange legs and feet, and, during the mating season, orange beaks.  This past May, it was estimated that between 3,150 and 8,500 puffins starved to death in the Bering Sea, their emaciated bodies washing ashore on the Pribilof Islands, some 300 miles west of mainland Alaska.  Prior to the mass deaths, there was a documented period of elevated sea surface temperatures in the eastern Bering Sea according to scientists.  The unfortunate result was a shift in zooplankton composition and in forage fish distribution, both food sources for the puffin.

In Iceland, too, puffins are in trouble.  Researchers discovered that thousands of puffin chicks had died from starvation in the summer of 2018.  It turns out rising ocean temperatures have pushed cold-water fish farther north leaving the baby pufflings with little to eat.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) as vulnerable on its red list.  

Rising ocean temperatures are also affecting food availability and the habitat of many Arctic creatures, including the walrus, polar bear, gray whale, arctic fox, and ice seal.  Some are starving to death, some wandering long and far in search of food.  Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt seals at their breathing holes.  When the sea is not covered in ice, breathing holes become unnecessary as the seals can come up anywhere for air, and are no longer easy for polar bears to snatch up.  The World Wildlife Fund has reported a 40% drop in number of the southern Beaufort Sea polar bears between 2001 and 2010.   Worse still, scientists forecasting global polar bear populations estimate a high probability that 30% of polar bears worldwide will be gone by 2050.

Declining sea ice is also harming seals. Baby harp seals lie on the ice during their fragile first few weeks of life.  Without a thick and stable span of ice, seal pups may drown or be crushed by broken ice.  In 2007, a then surprising 75 percent plus of pups died due to thin ice conditions; in 2010, nearly all.  “Some years, when there’s poor ice in a given pupping ground, essentially all of the pups don’t make it,” says Duke marine biologist David Johnston.  As temperatures continue to rise, seal survival becomes precarious.

The Pacific walrus population is in decline with only 129,000 animals left.  Due to climate change, the floating summer ice that walruses used to haul themselves upon to rest is now way up north.  Consequently the animals are swimming ashore and taking to land in huge numbers.  Unfortunately their feeding grounds are far away from shore, forcing a 250 mile round trip.  In addition to exhaustion from traveling long distances and food scarcity, walruses also face threats from being on the beach in vast crowds.  In 2014, 35,000 walruses were seen together on the shore near Point Lay, Alaska.  The animals, which can weigh as much as 1.5 tons, can be frightened easily by loud noises like airplanes, causing stampedes and mass deaths by trampling, especially of young calves – as many as 500 in one incident.  If ice continues to diminish, their future looks bleak.  

Then there are the gray whales.  Their favorite crustacean is the amphipod – a small flat morsel with segments and antennae resembling a grasshopper.  These lipid-rich crustaceans are devoured by whales in bulk.  Over the past 30 years, as currents have warmed and sea ice has melted, amphipod populations have declined in the Bering Sea whale feeding area.  As a result, gray whale mothers and babies have had no choice but to swim north through the Bering Strait and far into the Arctic Ocean in search of an alternate food supply.  They are so hungry they are eating krill and mysid shrimp, but as it takes an enormous quantity to match the calories of lipid-rich amphipods, the whales remain hungry.

The North Atlantic right whale, a species federally classified as endangered, is also affected by the rising ocean temperatures.  The Smithsonian reports that right whales eat more than 2,000 pounds each day, mostly copepods.  Their favorite copepod, the Calanus finmarchicus, has dramatically declined because some of the deep waters of the north Atlantic have warmed almost 9 degrees Fahrenheit since 2004, forcing right whales to migrate elsewhere in search of food.  Several right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters in recent months, and a sixth dead whale was found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in July of this year.  The steep rise since 2010 in the deaths of these whales from shipping vessel strikes as well as entanglement with fishing gear is attributed to the animals moving into new and unexpected areas where speed restrictions for vessels are not in place.  With some 400 right whales left (out of 500 in the early 2000s) and about 100 breeding females, the species may face extinction if these trends continue.  Researchers are hoping to use satellite technology to detect whales in new territory, allowing for faster responses in moving fishing nets and large vessels.

Creatures large and small face threats from melting ice.  Lemmings are like hamsters of the tundra – small, furry rodents with faces and whiskers as adorable as the childhood pet.  In winter, northern Norway lemmings burrow under the snow for insulation and protection from prey.  During good snow seasons, they reach population peaks and their young prosper.  But in Norway in recent years, rising temperatures are causing repeated thawing and icing periods resulting in poor snow conditions for the lemmings.  The resulting altered and reduced population cycles mean lemmings are no longer reaching population peaks. 

The arctic fox relies on lemmings as a primary food source, and scientists believe lemming decline has contributed to sharp declines and breeding failures in the arctic fox population of Norway.  Arctic foxes also face threats from the red fox, a larger more aggressive animal, which historically lived south of the arctic fox habitat.  Due to climate change and warming of the Arctic, however, the red fox is encroaching on arctic fox areas.  Warming is also converting the tundra to shrublands, a habitat the red fox desires.  The poor arctic fox faces loss of habitat, decreased food availability, increased competition for food, and possible displacement by the red fox.  And with the Arctic continuing to warm, these changes will only become more extensive.  Small wonder then that the arctic fox often has to travel long and hard to find food.  One female captured all our hearts as it traveled 3,500 km from Norway to Canada in 76 days, its remarkable journey including 1,512 km on sea ice.

These few examples demonstrate the impact of global warming on diverse forms of life — from coral reefs and lemmings to the right whale.  We learn that changes in plankton and tiny crustaceans can starve a giant whale and diminishing ice cover can cause polar bears to lose their primary food source, and we begin to register the intimate interconnectedness in the web of life.  Human well-being too is tied to this chain of life.  If fish decline, so does a food source for humans and the water birds that feed on fish, and as insect pollinators decline, so do our crops and the plants around us.  A study suggests that 40% of insect species are in decline.  And the U.S. and Canada have lost three billion birds since 1970.  In this anthropocene age, humans are not rapacious owners but stewards of our planet, holding it in trust for succeeding generations.  It is what the young led by Greta Thunberg are forcefully making clear to their elders.   

Author’s note: This piece first appeared in CommonDreams.org.

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Green Planet

The Climate Action Summit Fiasco

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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No one could fail to be touched by the fear (for the future) and urgency in Greta Thunberg’s young voice as she broke down while addressing world leaders on the last day of the UN Climate Summit.  The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Special Report on the oceans showed a worse prognosis, the patient is clearly worse.

Sad to say, despite all Greta’s efforts, nothing happened — no commitment by any of the major polluters.  Trump sauntered by before going on to mock her in his address — a grown man bullying a 16-year old girl! 

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres wanted a commitment to the higher ambition of limiting global warming to 1.5C instead of 2C.  He got excuses, and of course no promise of net zero by 2050 from any major polluter.  Net zero implies balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal.  He also wanted a commitment to no new coal plants beyond 2020. Instead China, India and Turkey will be shamelessly expanding coal power well beyond that date. 

China wanted the developed nations to take the lead due to their long history of emissions and consequent responsibility.  It refused to make concrete commitments unless the US and EU did so.  The EU blames Poland, a coal exporter; the US has Mr. Trump.  In the end none of the major polluters (China, India, EU, US) did although 80 other countries pledged to reach net zero by 2050. 

Included in the 80 who pledged were 47 least developed countries (LDCs) although they are the least responsible for the emissions.  They have also been victimized by past colonialism, slavery, and for many the IMF’s notorious structural adjustment programs.

The climate data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) presented at the summit is sobering:  Global temperatures are up 1.1C since 1850 of which a 0.2C (or near 20 percent) rise occurred from 2011 to 2015.  The five-year period from 2014 to 2019 is the hottest on record while carbon emissions over the same period are up 20 percent from the previous five years.  Sea level rise since 2014 has averaged 5mm annually while the 10-year average up to 2016 was only 4mm.

One consequence of the sea level rise and warmer temperatures has been the human catastrophe from the unprecedented storms in Mozambique and the Bahamas recently.

Ninety percent of the excess heat from climate change is absorbed by water, and the WMO recorded the highest ocean heat content on record in 2018.  It poses a special danger for the Greenland ice sheet and the Arctic.  New research (July 2019) also finds melt under the water surface from glaciers reaching the sea and icebergs is ‘orders of magnitude’ greater than previously believed.  It threatens a dramatic sea level rise by the end of the century.  

Professor Brian Hoskins, a meteorologist from Imperial College London warns, “Climate change due to us is accelerating and on a very dangerous course,” adding “We should listen to the loud cry from the school children …”  No one is listening Professor, despite human-induced warming exacerbating storms, wildfires, heatwaves, coastal flooding, etc.  No, not a single major polluter stood up to make a commitment.  The EU blames Poland which relies on coal exports and has veto power over any EU-wide policy; the US, Brazil and Saudi Arabia scrupulously avoided the event as if it were a plague.

The IPCC officially adopted its report on oceans and the cryosphere (those portions of Earth’s surface where water is in solid form, including sea ice, lake ice, river ice, snow cover, glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, and frozen ground).  Compiled by 100 scientists, it  forecasts a catastrophic rise in sea levels, coastal flooding and worsening disasters.  It moved none of the implacables — not even the terrifying fact that Greenland’s ice sheet alone can raise sea levels by 20 feet.  All of it was ignored and instead of a breakthrough, the IPCC was left touting its evidence and reports at the end of the summit.

To summarize, nothing happened.  The climate action summit became a climate inaction summit, and the climate can was kicked down the road to Chile for the next IPCC meeting in December. 

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Green Planet

Actions not words: What was promised at the UN’s landmark climate summit?

MD Staff

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Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg , speaks at the opening of the UN Climate Action Summit 2019. UN Photo/Cia Pak

UN Secretary-General warned leaders not to come to his landmark Climate Action Summit with beautiful speeches, but to present concrete plans for cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions, and strategies for carbon neutrality by 2050. So what, exactly, was promised at Monday’s all-day event at UN Headquarters in New York?

Profiting from sustainability

The private sector had a chance to demonstrate how it can bring about real positive change, when 87 major companies – with a combined market capitalization of over US$2.3 trillion, over 4.2 million employees, and annual direct emissions equivalent to 73 coal-fired power plants – committed to setting climate targets across their operations.

These businesses include well-known brands such as Burberry, Danone, Ericsson, Electrolux, IKEA, and Nestlé. A number of these companies (you can find the full list here), went a step further, by committing to “science-based targets”, which means that their corporate emissions cuts can be independently assessed.

Speaking at the UN Global Compact Private Sector Forum, Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group, an Indian multinational conglomerate with over 200,000 employees, said that more and more business leaders are waking up to the fact that sustainability and profit go together, and that climate action represents the biggest business opportunity of the next few decades.

In the finance sector, some of the world’s largest pension funds and insurers, responsible for directing more than $2 trillion in investments, have joined together to form the Asset Owner Alliance, which committed to moving their portfolios to carbon-neutral investments by 2050. The members of the Alliance are already engaging with companies in which they are investing, to ensure that they are decarbonizing their business models.

Unlocking the power of nature

Using the power of nature is believed to be one of the most effective and immediate ways to address the climate crisis. Strengthening natural ecosystems such as forests, for example, is one such solution: more forests means more capacity for carbon capture, and replanting mangrove forests provides an effective and cheap natural barrier against coastal floods and shoreline erosion.

Monday saw the launch of several initiatives designed to boost nature-based solutions. These include the Global Campaign for Nature, which plans to conserve around 30 percent of the Earth’s lands and oceans by 2030; a High-Level Panel for the Sustainable Ocean Economy, which will build resilience for the ocean and marine-protected areas; and the Central African Forest Initiative promises to protect the region’s forest cover, which provides livelihoods for some 60 million people.

Cleaning up cities

It is now possible to construct buildings that are 100 per cent net-zero carbon emitters, and the Zero Carbon Buildings for All initiative is pledging to make all buildings – new build and existing – net zero carbon by 2050. This could potentially lead to a $1 trillion investment in developing countries, by 2030.

A total of 2000 cities committed to placing climate risk at the centre of their decision-making, planning and investments: this includes launching 1,000 bankable, climate-smart urban projects, and creating innovative financing mechanisms.

Tackling traffic congestion and pollution is the aim of the Action Towards Climate Friendly Transport initiative, which includes actions to plan city development in a way that minimises travel, shift from fossil-fuelled vehicles to non-motorized and public transport, and increase the use of zero-emission technologies.

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