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Green Planet

Raging Oceans, Dying Pollinators, And Then The Virus

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Authors: Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

If the coronavirus is life-threatening, and almost all of the USA is in varying levels of lockdown, the speed of its arrival and impact should at least remind us of the fragility of life — not just for our own species but on the planet itself.  Of course, Donald Trump disbanded the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense.  Set up after the Ebola scare, its job was to deal exactly with the type of threat we are facing; that is, to prepare for, lead  and coordinate resources to deal quickly and effectively with the emergency — its absence is yet another reason for the White House’s lackluster response.    

Then there is man-induced climate change.  The Antarctic hit a record 64.9F (18.3C) last month surpassing the previous high of 63.5F (17.5C) set in 2015.  Three days later on February 9th, the same measuring research station experienced an astounding 69.35F (20.75C) (livescience.com).  Perhaps it is to be expected when we are pumping CO2 to record levels in the atmosphere.  Current measurements are 413 ppm (Feb., 2020), a rise of 100ppm over 1950 figures (climate.nasa.gov/evidence/). 

Global warming is also blamed for hot Australian summers and the deadly forest fires in South Australia fueled by drought and extreme heat.  Most distressingly, these destroyed the entire habitats of several animal species and cost the lives of an estimated billion animals. 

One bright note is a stand of conifers (the Wollemi Pine) dating back to the dinosaurs has been saved through the extraordinary efforts of firefighters who dropped water and flame retardant from airplanes into the single canyon where they exist.  Millions of years ago, they were common across the ancient Gondwana supercontinent. 

Greenland and Antarctica are now losing ice at a six-times faster rate than in the 1990s raising sea levels and threatening coastal areas.  The rise of 17.8 mm since 1992 has been 60 percent due to Greenland and the rest to Antarctica (Nature, Dec 10, 2019).  Scientists now expect an extra 17mm (6.7 inch) rise in sea levels above current projections by 2100, and massive flooding of coastal areas, already experiencing very early signs (Greenland and Antarctica Ice Melt — BBC).   But that is small potatoes in comparison with the Denman Glacier in East Antarctica. 

This massive glacier has retreated 5 km (about 3 miles) in the last 22 years reports a new study appearing in Geophysical Research Letters (Science Daily, March 23, 2020).  From 1979 to 2017, it has lost a cumulative 268 billion tons.  Of particular concern to researchers is the ground surface underneath which renders the glacier more susceptible to global-warming collapse.  This vast ice sheet has the potential by itself to raise sea levels by 1.5 meters (5 feet).

While global warming is causing a speedup of many ocean currents, an anomaly is the consequence of Greenland ice melt reaching the Atlantic at the origins of the Gulf Stream current.  Reducing salinity, it impacts its driver, namely, the sinking salt water (Science, Feb. 7, 2020, p.612) weakening the current — its  beneficence accounting for the relatively benign winters in Britain and Ireland and extending as far north as Iceland, Norway and southern Sweden

At the same time, an analysis of data from the Argo array, some 4000 floats deployed across the globe to collect data, indicates an acceleration in currents, particularly in the tropics and the Southern Ocean (Science Advances, Feb 5, 2020).  Global warming is the likely cause spurring ocean winds to speed currents, although proof awaits more data collection.  A speed-up of currents and rising sea levels paints a picture of a rising, raging sea threatening coastal communities (National Geographic, Oct, 15, 2019) that have been popularized by developers in living memory.

The ecosystem is also threatened in other ways, particularly through the demise of pollinator species — on whom we, too, depend for our necessary crops.  A recent paper (Science February 7, 2020, p.626) reports widespread decline in bumble bee populations in North America and Europe.  Warming temperature is the likely culprit.  A temperature rise beyond the tolerable limits for bumble bees necessitates migration, often to areas that had been too cold for them before but have warmed up now to be tolerable.

Unfortunately, the rate of extirpation has exceeded that of colonization causing widespread decline.  The resulting consequences to plant species deprived of the ecosystem services of this pollinator are clearly unfavorable — if not disastrous — but have yet to be surveyed.

Meanwhile, wild bee species are in decline worldwide.  A halving from an estimated 6700 species in the 1950s to a shocking 3400 in the 2010s was reported in Science News (January 22, 2020).  While previous bee studies have addressed declining populations, the evidence collected had been limited to industrially developed Europe and North America.  The significance of the new research is its global scope.

In Thailand, for example, the ground nesting bee, Megachili bicolor, is fast losing habitat to expanding urbanization and agriculture.

With more scientists entering the field, the total number of bees observed by them has increased as one would expect.  But sadly, the number of species recorded keep plummeting on most continents.  The exception has been Australia where bee species first rose from 300 to 500 in the 2000s.  Then in the 2010s they fell back to 300.  What was once seen as a trend only in advanced countries is now global, and thousands of species have become either very rare or extinct. 

Bees and other insects like butterflies are vital in that they pollinate 75 percent of our most important crops.  Now butterflies are also under threat.  The monarchs in the US are the victims of herbicides like glyphosate, and global warming upsets their seasonal migration patterns.  They are also losing habitat, the loss estimated at 165 million acres in the US reports the Center for Biological Diversity.

Of the two migratory populations of monarchs, the western population numbered 1.2 million in the 1990s and the eastern about a billion.  These numbers have dropped drastically to a critical 30,000 in the west  and 225 million in the east.  Since 2018 when these winter counts were taken, the numbers in the west have declined further this year to a little over 29,000.

Now we have the coronavirus giving modern humans an intimate foretaste of their ecological vulnerability.  As it is easily transmissible, the situation can turn quickly into an out-of-control pandemic.  If  it affects 70 percent, as an expert recently predicted (CBS News), of the world’s population of about 8 billion, it will infect 5.6 billion people.  Assuming a 1 percent death rate, which is on the low side of recent estimates, it results in 56 million fatalities — not unlike WW2.  The same figures applied to the US yield 2.3 million deaths.      

One might be forgiven for wondering if it is not Mother Earth’s Gaian response to destructive human activity.  Could it even be just the initial onslaught?  Now that is a frightening thought. 

Authors’ Note:  An earlier version of this article appeared on Counterpunch.org

Dr. Arshad M. Khan is a former Professor based in the US. Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. Thus he headed the analysis of an innovation survey of Norway, and his work on SMEs published in major journals has been widely cited. He has for several decades also written for the press: These articles and occasional comments have appeared in print media such as The Dallas Morning News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and others. On the internet, he has written for Antiwar.com, Asia Times, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy among many. His work has been quoted in the U.S. Congress and published in its Congressional Record.

Green Planet

Researchers unveil roadmap for a carbon neutral China by 2060

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Chinese president Xi Jinping told the UN general assembly on 22 September that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The announcement sparked a huge response and gave rise to speculation as to how this would be achieved.

On 12 October, research into a possible route to that target was published by Tsinghua University’s Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development (ICCSD) – the most authoritative roadmap to emerge since the commitment was made. If China follows the recommendations of the report, it could mean tougher energy-saving and emissions-reductions targets for the 14th Five Year Plan (FYP), a more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for 2030, with yet faster and deeper decarbonisation to come from 2030 onwards.  

Decarbonising for the 1.5C target

The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit climate warming to 2C (compared to pre-industrial levels) at the end of the century, while pursing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C. That 1.5C target has been controversial because it requires greater emissions cuts and it was only added to the text of the agreement at the last minute.

Professor He Jiankun, project leader of the new study and chair of the ICCSD’s academic committee, said at a press briefing on the research that “achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 essentially means a long-term deep decarbonisation process oriented at the 1.5C target”. The director of the ICCSD is Xie Zhenhua, formerly China’s special climate envoy. Xie was also overall supervisor of this research project.

According to the roadmap presented in the study, by 2050 China must achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions, with emissions of all greenhouse gases down 90% on 2020 levels, if it is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The authors did not offer a specific roadmap for reducing emissions between 2050 and 2060, but said that emissions cuts should be increased, with negative emissions growth in the energy sector and more capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide using carbon sinks and carbon removal technologies.

The roadmap implies that all greenhouse gases are included in China’s 2060 pledge – something that observers had wondered about. But one expert close to China’s policy on non-CO2 greenhouse gases told China Dialogue that for now it remains an academic assumption, and official documents would be needed to confirm the government position.

Although the recommended roadmap is ultimately closing in on the 1.5C target, this does not mean China will immediately fast-track deep decarbonisation. The roadmap has two stages: before 2030 China will cut emissions according to an “enhanced mitigation scenario”, with a tougher 2030 NDC target and increasing efforts to reduce emissions. But that alone would leave China far from even the 2C target. However, the researchers propose much tougher measures after 2030, which will bring China into line with the 1.5C target. Assuming these recommendations are adopted, China will see a later, but steeper decline in emissions than it would if it set out to hit the 1.5C target immediately, with a carbon peak by 2030, an energy consumption peak around 2035, and carbon emissions approaching zero by 2050.

At the launch, He Jiankun explained that “the economy and the energy sector are hugely complicated systems, with a lot of inertia, so a transition will take time”. Rapid implementation of the absolute carbon cuts needed for the 2C or even 1.5C target would be very difficult, and China still needs to develop. So in the first stage, staving off additional emissions rather than cutting existing emissions should be the priority to bring about a carbon peak. But after 2030, the speed with which China reduces emissions will “far outstrip the developed nations”.

Implications for near-term policy

There is a great deal of interest in how China’s 2060 carbon neutrality target will affect the 14th Five Year Plan (for 2021-2025), which is currently being drafted, with this being seen as a test of China’s level of commitment.

The researchers also make suggestions for energy-saving and emissions-reduction targets in the 14th FYP, such as a 20% share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption by 2025, and a carbon emissions cap of under 10.5 billion tonnes (2020 figures for these are expected to be 16% and 10.3 billion tonnes respectively).

“We have to control any rebound in coal use during the 14th FYP and work towards peak coal, or even negative growth,” said He.

The researchers also recommend China toughens and updates its NDC for 2030, lowering carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by over 65% on 2005 levels and reaching a 25% share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption.

Speaking at the launch, Wang Yi, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (China’s top legislative body) and vice director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Science and Development, said that 14th FYP targets should remain tough and be expanded: for example, by including overall caps – in particular a carbon cap – alongside existing efficiency targets (such as carbon and energy intensity). Other experts have also called for a carbon cap in the 14th FYP.

Wang also pointed out that a package of legislation will be needed to ensure 14th FYP climate targets are met. This includes an Energy Law currently being drafted, an ongoing revision to the Energy-Saving Law, and a Law on Combating Climate Change being prepared. “The Law on Combating Climate Change will only reach the statute books if a carbon cap is at its core – if not, it loses a raison d’etre as other laws can replace it,” Wang said. Lower level regulations, such as for carbon markets, must also keep up, he said.

From our partner Chinadialogue

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Green Planet

COVID-19 has given a fillip to biodiversity

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The COVID-19 outbreak caused many problems for the world, but in return gave the planet’s environment and biodiversity a chance to breathe. The high mortality rate may be worrisome, but it provided us with the opportunity to think more about how we should treat biodiversity in a better way.

Biodiversity is an important feature of life explained by the vast diversity of plants and animals, which is a non-renewable resource and its loss will be irreparable, Kioumars Kalantari, head of the natural environment and biodiversity of the Department of Environment said.

The growing importance of biodiversity is due to its role in maintaining the stability of ecosystems, because in an ecosystem, the greater the species diversity, the longer food chains, resulting in a more stable environment, he added.

According to him, today the protection of biodiversity, habitats, and natural ecosystems is among the most important indicators of sustainable development in the world.

Fortunately, Iran benefits from rich biodiversity due to special climatic, geographical, and topographic conditions and characteristics, and more than 8600 species of plants and 1300 species of vertebrates live in the country, he highlighted.

Unfortunately, the environment faces a variety of threats and challenges, including pollution, habitat destruction, climate change, sand and dust storms, natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and increasing disease outbreaks, he noted.

He went on to say that despite all the efforts that have been made nationally as well as internationally worldwide, the environment today is no better than it was in the early twentieth century.

The sudden prevalence of COVID-19, followed by lock-downs and restrictions around the world, reduction in human activity, the evacuation of highways, reduction in travel, air, and land transport, and a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, has benefited the nature much, he explained.

It greatly improved air quality and reduced the risk of lung and cardiovascular diseases, key environmental indicators that have been steadily deteriorating for more than half a century, remained fixed, or moved towards improvement, he emphasized.

The extent of the disease and the human casualties may be so painful that it does not give us a chance to rejoice in the healing process of nature and the environment, but the good condition of climate and nature can be a fillip for each of us on this planet, especially those in charge, to think more about our past actions and slow down our exponential pace of unsustainable development and the destruction of valuable biological resources, he also highlighted.

Perhaps changing our plans and behaviors to use more of renewable energy, while increasing the use of telecommunications facilities such as video conferencing, webinars, online meetings, can greatly reduce travel as well as greenhouse gas emissions and thus help preserve nature and valuable biodiversity treasures, he said.

Biodiversity conservation is in fact the protection of ourselves and the resources without which we cannot survive, he stated, adding, human health depends on the health of other creatures and the environment in which they live.

The outbreak of the coronavirus and its pathogenic consequences highlights the importance of the dependence of the health of all organisms on the planet on each other and the environment.

“Our Solutions Are in Nature” which expresses the importance of nature in responding to the challenges we face in terms of sustainable development and the necessity of comprehensive cooperation to achieve a future in harmony with nature, he added.

According to experts, “the most important and largest public asset of any country is the environment”, unfortunately, due to the wrong approach and underestimation of its vital importance, its capacity is declining every day, and it cannot be exchanged or bought, although some officials, especially economists, suggest ways to price these environmental resources, they are invaluable, he stated.

Kalantari further expressed hope that by living in harmony with nature, humans will be able to benefit as much as possible from the valuable resources and to protect and preserve the biological richness of the world in the best possible way.

Why human absence prospers nature?

Pointing out that protecting the planet is important to humans, and we need to maintain the best conditions on Earth after Coronavirus, Mohammad Darvish, a member of the National Security Council for the environment, said that the pandemic has caused the earth to breathe deeply, and now the wise man is faced with the question that “why, when human activity as a member of the ecosystem decreases, not only does nothing happen, but the condition of nature improves.”

Think of bees being removed from nature. In this case, the integrity of the Earth’s environmental property, the reproduction of many species and humans themselves will be damaged, or if brown bears are removed, soil fertility will decrease, or if wild boars are removed, water permeability will decrease and floods will increase, he explained.

Therefore, there have been wise in the creation of all plant and animal species or even insects, and have contributed to the earth’s resilience, he emphasized.

Why has it now happened that man, who considers himself the best of creatures, that must be more responsible, has behaved in such a way that his absence is in favor of nature and the earth?

Such happening should give us a lesson to change our development programs in favor of nature and try to understand the laws of nature, instead of spending budgets on warfare, larger and more horrific weapons, he noted, implying that environmental research and health is now more essential as well as improvement of the education system so that in the post-corona crisis world we can appear wiser, more knowledgeable, and more responsible.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Green Planet

Global Warming: Past as Prologue to the Future

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Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

If the vice-presidential debate lacked direction, hurricane Delta did not.  It slammed into the Louisiana coast as a Category 2 causing widespread damage with its 100 mph winds, then continued inland as a Category 1 storm.  If Delta sounds like an unusual name for a hurricane, it is. 

The World Meteorological Organization has a list from A to W of 21 potential storm names.  The letters Q, W, X, Y and Z are omitted.  In all there are six lists meaning that the 2020 list will be repeated in 2026.

Using names for storms facilitates identification in communications when compared to the prior method using latitude and longitude particularly when the storm itself is moving. 

So here we are in 2020 with 25 storms so far.  The residents on the Louisiana coast have had a double whammy with hurricane Laura slamming them earlier in the last week of August.  It was a deadly Category 4 with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.  Just 7 mph short of a Category 5 (the deadliest) Laura was only the fourth Category 4 to strike Louisiana since records were kept.  

In addition to the numbers of storms, there are other climate anomalies.  September this year has been the hottest on record and Death Valley reached a temperature of 130 F (54.4 C) the highest ever observed.  September 2019 in turn had also been the hottest on record for our planet. 

If there are storms along the coasts and flooding due to a warming ocean, inland it is not only warmer but drier.  Forests are like tinder needing only a lightning spark or a downed electricity line to set them off.  Thus the forest fires in southeastern Australia and California.

Europe too is warmer.  Forest fires particularly in the south, and inundation are more frequent.  Reading in England for example has just suffered the wettest 48 hours ever. 

The south of France usually associated with blissful weather experienced torrential downpours with more than a half meter of rain (about 20 inches) in a day.  It was an event Meteo-France noted that occurs once in a hundred years.  And then it happened again.  Storm Alex, the cause of this misery, hit France and also Italy and England.  Floods and landslides caused serious damage north of Nice destroying roads, bridges and houses.  In adjoining Italy a section of a bridge over the Sesia river collapsed in the rising waters.  Affecting the Piedmont, Lombardy and Liguria regions, it dropped over 23 inches (0.63 m) of rain.  The Po river rose more than 9 ft (3 m ) in 24 hours. 

The key lesson from all this is that global warming is making rare events more common, that the window for action is narrowing, and that the longer such action is delayed the more onerous will be the burden on humanity.  In the meantime, the global warming already built into the system will continue to affect climate for the foreseeable future. 

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