Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Natural Fix?: The Role of Ecosystems in Climate Mitigation

The title of this post is also the title of a new report from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). The bottom line = The ability of the Earth's living systems to store carbon could play a vital role in the mitigation of climate change. The report, a PDF of which can be downloaded from here, suggests that safeguarding and restoring carbon in ecosystems has the potential to prevent huge amounts of carbon entering the atmosphere - some estimates say well over 50 gigatonnes (Gt).

The three priority ecosystems for carbon conservation and management are forests, peatlands and agriculture. For example, reducing deforestation rates by 50 per cent by 2050 could avoid the release of up to 50 Gt of carbon this century. Emissions from deforestation are equivalent to about 15 per cent of the total global anthropogenic carbon emissions. Similarly, the draining of peatland for agricultural land and other land uses emits up to 0.8 Gt of carbon a year. And in agriculture, if best management practices were adopted it could save up to 6 Gt of CO2 equivalent per year by 2030.

The report suggests that the management of carbon storage and uptake is achievable if the right policy framework is in place. It suggests we need to change our perception of the natural world from an offset mechanism, though the authors do note that there is some uncertainty about the amounts of carbon that can be sequestered and that all stores could eventually reach saturation.

See the report here. As I've reported before, we have to start finding solutions to climate change.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Green Businesses Now Generate More Revenue Than the Aerospace and Defense Sectors Combined

That's right. It pays to be green. According to a story by Fiona Harvey published in the September 18, 2009 Financial Times (the London version of the Wall Street Journal), "[b]usinesses selling low-carbon goods and services now generate more revenue than the aerospace and defence sectors combined, making the sector one of the new linchpins of the global economy."

And that global turnover reached $534bn for "companies in the climate change sector - including renewable-power generators, nuclear, energy management, water and waste companies," versus about $530bn total for the other two sectors. And the numbers are increasing at rates far beyond the initial predictions, which hadn't figured on reaching this level until 2050.

So it seems the smart and innovative money is on the low carbon industry. Guess those climate change denialists are going to lose out on the big bucks.

Read Fiona Harvey's full article here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Scientist Norman Borlaug, "Father of the Green Revolution," Has Died

The man known as the "father of the green revolution," agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug, has died at the age of 95.

Many probably have never heard of Norman Borlaug, but he arguably did more to increase crop yields and reduce hunger in developing countries than any other individual. His research and activism in bringing the benefits of that research direct to the farmers both here and abroad led to a movement that came to be known as the "green revolution." And because of it, world food production more than doubled in the thirty years between 1960 and 1990. In two countries that benefited most from the new crop varieties, Pakistan and India, yields of wheat and other grains more than quadrupled over that period.

While most scientists toil without recognition for most of their careers, Borlaug was one of only five people who have won all of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. To that he can add the Padma Vibhushan, which is awarded by the President of India to "recognize exceptional and distinguished service to the nation in any field..." According to his Wiki article, Borlaug's discoveries have been estimated to have saved over 245 million lives worldwide (others estimate the green revolution averted global famine during the second half of the 20th century, which saved perhaps 1 billion lives worldwide). His work in India and Mexico are well known in agricultural, scientific, and humanitarian circles.

Needless to say, with an impact that large there were also criticisms. The green revolution, and Borlaug's programs involving genetic cross-breeding of plant species, were seen by some as being unnatural. In addition, large scale monocultures (picture a large expanse of wheat or corn fields) tend to reduce biodiversity, in addition to often increasing the amount of pesticides and fertilizers used, which can be damaging to the top soil and the subsistence farming of rural families in under-developed areas. Another concern is that these techniques create large profits for agribusiness and agrichemical corporations while widening social inequality in the recipient countries. While these concerns may be valid, Borlaug felt that keeping people from starving more than compensated for any of these drawbacks.

Scientists who speak out for the science (even if it's just to correct the misrepresentations that others make of that science), are sometimes looked on with disdain both by those for whom the science is ideologically inconvenient and by pure scientists who feel the scientist should remain in the lab and let others handle policy. Borlaug had a different philosophy. According to a wonderful article just published about him:

Equal parts scientist and humanitarian, the Iowa-born Borlaug realized improved crop varieties were just part of the answer, and pressed governments for farmer-friendly economic policies and improved infrastructure to make markets accessible.

We should remember that without scientists informing our policy-makers, our rivers would still be catching fire, our neighborhoods would still be exposing us to toxic waste, our country would have never made it to the moon, our air would still be thick enough to see (and kill), and our existence and that of many other species on this planet would come into question.