Category Archives: Greenlash

China’s blue-green Olympics

Coastal eutrophication is an increasing problem in China, due to their massive use of fertilizers.

china algae

Large blooms of blooms of blue-green algae are clogging parts of the sailing course at one of China’s Olympic sites in Quindoa. Algae are being manually removed by a thousand boats and thousands of people at (AFP, AP, Guardian, NYT, and photos from Xinmin). Bloomberg news writes:

Warmer waters, increased rainfall and high levels of nutrients in the ocean brought about the algae explosion along vast stretches of the 800-kilometer (500-mile) coastline, according to the Qingdao Weather Bureau.

Qingdao, located 830 kilometers from Beijing, is mobilizing more than 1,000 fishing boats to scoop up the algae and contain the outbreak, Wang said.

“We can only haul the blue-green algae manually and we’re doing all we can with our arms full and by the boat-load,” said Wang, a sailing spokesman for the Beijing Games organizing committee. “All you can see is fishing boats along the coast.”

via Great Beyond

update: BBC video of army algae removal

A giant pool of money flows into global agriculture

As part of its interesting Food Chain series, the New York Times writes Food Is Gold, So Billions Invested in Farming about how investment funds are pouring billions of dollars into agriculture. One investment bank has estimated that investments in agricultural commodities has increased over 3X, from $70 billion at the start of 2006 to $235 billion in April of 2008, with roughly half of this growth being due to appreciation and half to new investment (for more details see Financial Times on agricultural funds and why food prices are rising?). However, money is now moving from investments in commodity futures into actual agricultural infrastructure:

Huge investment funds have already poured hundreds of billions of dollars into booming financial markets for commodities like wheat, corn and soybeans. But a few big private investors are starting to make bolder and longer-term bets that the world’s need for food will greatly increase — by buying farmland, fertilizer, grain elevators and shipping equipment.

Part of the article is reminiscent of the TechnoGarden scenario of the MA, in which rich companies invest in the underdeveloped African agriculture infrastructure. The article states:

Emergent is raising $450 million to $750 million to invest in farmland in sub-Saharan Africa, where it plans to consolidate small plots into more productive holdings and introduce better equipment. Emergent also plans to provide clinics and schools for local labor.

One crop and a source of fuel for farming operations will be jatropha, an oil-seed plant useful for biofuels that is grown in sandy soil unsuitable for food production, Ms. Payne said.

“We are getting strong response from institutional investors — pensions, insurance companies, endowments, some sovereign wealth funds,” she said.

The fund chose Africa because “land values are very, very inexpensive, compared to other agriculture-based economies,” she said. “Its microclimates are enticing, allowing a range of different crops. There’s accessible labor. And there’s good logistics — wide open roads, good truck transport, sea transport.”

However, unlike the TechnoGarden scenario, this investment seems focussed on increasing yields of food and fuel, rather than producing multiple ecosystem services. Consequently, such investments attempts to increase yields by practicing intensive agriculture are likely to lead to negative impacts on other people and ecosystems using water, and potentially leading to local or regional ecological regime shifts (see our paper Gordon et al 2008).

Also, many of these investments are not aimed at increasing agricultural yield on the ground, but hedging against inflation risk, and providing market power for large funds to leverage investments in other financial instruments, such as options, derivatives and other more complicated packages. This coupling of financial markets, to the already coupled food, fuel, and climate systems means that the systemic consequences of these investments are likely to be unexpected and novel.

Scenarios and Resilience

People or organizations can focus their effort on a narrow goal, or they can diversify the uses of resources to explore and innovate. It is hard to do both at the same time. This pattern arises in politics as well as in corporations, agencies or academic institutions. When politics of democracies begin to lock into a stationary state, party positions are caricatures, messages are simplistic, campaigns are tightly scripted, media events are rigidly coordinated, and big donors demand loyal candidates. These conditions do not encourage broad, creative, inventive discussions of the most important problems of the day. Such a political environment seems hopelessly incapable of addressing the multiple shocks of the present – the credit crisis, sharply rising prices of energy and food, shortage of arable land, declining capacity of ecosystems to produce the goods that people need, and the complex challenges of climate change, among others. These shocks are unprecedented, so the solutions are novel – the kinds of solutions that cannot emerge from gridlock politics.

Nonetheless, people need answers to complex questions. In a recent global survey, respondents were asked to identify the questions that were most important to them. Questions were then ranked in order of the number of respondents who identified them as important. All of the top-ranking questions were deeply complex. What does sustainability look like? How must humans adapt to survive the changes of this century? What economic structures best support a shift to sustainability? How can we re-invent politics so people feel that they have a voice? What kind of leadership does the world need now?

Complex questions can be addressed by scenarios – sets of stories about the future, derived from collaborative processes and models, designed to integrate diverse perspectives. The scenarios of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment are a recent example.

Scenarios are a way of building resilience – the capacity to maintain useful features of nature and society, while inventing and implementing transformations to new ways of living. In a recent talk at Resilience 2008 I discussed some of the connections between scenarios and resilience. To break out of traps, people need positive stories of what the future could be, and blunt warnings of dangerous paths. Scenarios provide such motivating visions. Moreover, the process of scenario-building itself may create connections that enable transformation. Scenario projects form networks of people in settings that promote playful, inventive thinking at the margin of formal politics. The scenarios, the insights, the people, or the networks themselves are capable of infiltrating wider thinking, and thereby contributing to change when the conditions are right.

What could expand the use of scenarios to build resilience? We need more people trained in relevant skills such as collaboration, rapid prototyping, flexible fast modeling, synthesis, and use of art, music, science and stories together. Courses exist and a sizeable literature is available. Yet the best way to learn scenarios is by doing. Why not try scenario thinking the next time you face a complex problem with long-term consequences?

The sustainability of improving living standards

Australian economist John Quiggin writes on The sustainability of improving living standards in a world of climate change. He discusses responses to the Stern Review on the economics of climate change. In particular, its conclusion that stabilizing at the atmosphere at 500 ppm CO2 equivalent in 2050 would result have same size economy as would otherwise have been reached in 2048.

Stern’s optimistic view that CO2 emissions could be greatly reduced without a corresponding reduction in living standards is rejected by critics beginning from two diametrically opposed positions. Although deeply hostile to each other, the two groups find some surprising common ground.

The first group are ‘Deep Green’ pessimists who see the end of consumer capitalism as both inevitable and desirable. At least since the reports of the Club of Rome in the 1970s, members of this group have argued that continued economic growth is inherently unsustainable. …

The mirror image of Deep Green pessimism is that of the ‘Dark Brown’ pessimists who say that we should do nothing to stabilise the climate because to do so will wreck our standards of living. Dark Brown commentators from thinktanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute warn of ruinous economic consequences even from modest first steps such as the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. …

Both groups engage in a fair bit of wishful thinking about their position, the Greens arguing that we’ll all be happier in the long run and the Browns claiming that the environmental problems will solve themselves if we ignore them. But these opposing claims are secondary to the shared presumption that economic growth depends on increasing exploitation of the natural environment and, in particular, on the burning of fossil fuels.

Underlying both Deep Green and Dark Brown positions is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of economic progress and of economic activity in a modern society. The concept of economic growth is so firmly embedded in our thinking that we forget it is just a metaphor. The idea of growth implies physical expansion, and any process of physical expansion has limits. …

The public-good nature of information explains how economic progress can continue without additional resources. Most obviously, improvements in information technology allow more and faster communication which in turn allows for yet more technological improvements. There is no apparent indication of diminishing marginal returns in this field; if anything the opposite. …

Despite the claims of Dark Browns and Deep Greens, we can, if we choose, have both a stable climate and steadily improving standards of living throughout the world. But the fact that we can achieve these things does not mean we will. At this stage, failure seems all too possible, as does a half-hearted response that will imply the need for much more costly action in the future.

While I am relatively optimistic about the ability of human society to successfully adapt and mitigate climate change I am worried that:

  1. Economic growth is not being decoupled from its use of global ecosystems, and
  2. Estimates of the costs of climate change fails to consider that we are substantially reducing the ability of the biosphere to adapt to climate change, which will have unknown but likely substantial negative impacts on human wellbeing.

Climate change amplifies eutrophication

Hans Paerl and Jef Huisman have a perspective article in Science that reviews how climate change may promote blooms of cyanobacteria Blooms Like It Hot (320 (5872): 57 ):

Nutrient overenrichment of waters by urban, agricultural, and industrial development has promoted the growth of cyanobacteria as harmful algal blooms (1, 2). These blooms increase the turbidity of aquatic ecosystems, smothering aquatic plants and thereby suppressing important invertebrate and fish habitats. Die-off of blooms may deplete oxygen, killing fish. Some cyanobacteria produce toxins, which can cause serious and occasionally fatal human liver, digestive, neurological, and skin diseases (1-4). Cyanobacterial blooms thus threaten many aquatic ecosystems, including Lake Victoria in Africa, Lake Erie in North America, Lake Taihu in China, and the Baltic Sea in Europe (3-6). Climate change is a potent catalyst for the further expansion of these blooms.

Rising temperatures favor cyanobacteria in several ways. Cyanobacteria generally grow better at higher temperatures (often above 25°C) than do other phytoplankton species such as diatoms and green algae (7, 8). This gives cyanobacteria a competitive advantage at elevated temperatures (8, 9). Warming of surface waters also strengthens the vertical stratification of lakes, reducing vertical mixing. Furthermore, global warming causes lakes to stratify earlier in spring and destratify later in autumn, which lengthens optimal growth periods. Many cyanobacteria exploit these stratified conditions by forming intracellular gas vesicles, which make the cells buoyant. Buoyant cyanobacteria float upward when mixing is weak and accumulate in dense surface blooms (1, 2, 7) (see the figure). These surface blooms shade underlying nonbuoyant phytoplankton, thus suppressing their opponents through competition for light (8). Cyanobacterial blooms may even locally increase water temperatures through the intense absorption of light. The temperatures of surface blooms in the Baltic Sea and in Lake IJsselmeer, Netherlands, can be at least 1.5°C above those of ambient waters (10, 11). This positive feedback provides additional competitive dominance of buoyant cyanobacteria over nonbuoyant phytoplankton.

Global warming also affects patterns of precipitation and drought. These changes in the hydrological cycle could further enhance cyanobacterial dominance. For example, more intense precipitation will increase surface and groundwater nutrient discharge into water bodies. In the short term, freshwater discharge may prevent blooms by flushing. However, as the discharge subsides and water residence time increases as a result of drought, nutrient loads will be captured, eventually promoting blooms. This scenario takes place when elevated winter-spring rainfall and flushing events are followed by protracted periods of summer drought. This sequence of events has triggered massive algal blooms in aquatic ecosystems serving critical drinking water, fishery, and recreational needs. Attempts to control fluctuations in the discharge of rivers and lakes by means of dams and sluices may increase residence time, further aggravating cyanobacteria-related ecological and human health problems.

Biofuel production vs. Aquatic ecosystems

Simon Donner writes about his new paper Corn-based ethanol production compromises goal of reducing nitrogen export by the Mississippi River (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0708300105) on his weblog maribo:

A new paper by my colleague Chris Kucharik and I looks at the new US Energy Policy, will calls for growing more corn to produce ethanol, will affect the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. For a quick summary, see Reuters, the CBC or AFP.

The Mississippi dumps a massive amount of nitrogen, largely in the form of the soluble ion nitrate, into the Gulf each spring. It promotes the growth of a lot of algae, which eventually sinks to the bottom and decomposes. This consumes much of the oxygen in the bottom waters, making life tough for bottom-dwelling fish and creatures like shrimp. The Dead Zone has reached over 20,000 km2 in recent years.

The primary source of all that nitrogen is fertilizer applied to corn grown in the Midwest and Central US. Reducing the Dead Zone to less than 5000 km2 in size, as is suggested in US policy, will require up to a 55% decrease in nitrogen levels in the Mississippi.

The new US Energy Policy calls for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by the year 2022. Of that, 15 billion can be produced from corn starch. Our study found meeting those would cause a 10-34% increase in nitrogen loading to the Gulf of Mexico.

Meeting the hypoxia reduction goal was already a difficult challenge. If the US pursues this biofuels strategy, it will be impossible to shrink the Dead Zone without radically changing the US food production system. The one option would be to dramatically reduce the non-ethanol uses of corn. Since the majority of corn grain is used as animal feed, a trade-off between using corn to fuel animals and using corn to fuel cars could emerge.

Nitrogen transfer from sea to land via commercial fisheries

Roxanne Maranger an ecologist at the University of Montreal and other have a neat paper in Nature Geoscience Nitrogen transfer from sea to land via commercial fisheries that shows that commercial fishing removed substantial amounts of nitrogen from coastal oceans. They show that while fertilizer run-off into the ocean and fishery removal of nitrogen have increased over the past forty years, the increase in nitrogen inputs has been faster. Consequently the proportion of nitrogen removed from coastal zone has dropped from a global average of about 60% in 1960 to about 20% in 2000. This trend as well as the spatial pattern of nitrogen withdrawal are shown in figure 1 of their paper:

Nature GeoScience

Figure 1. a, Total amount of N in fertilizer run-off (Tg N yr-1=1012 g N yr-1) delivered to the global ocean (left axis, blue line) and N returned as fish biomass (left axis, red line) per year over time. The orange line (right axis) is the proportion of fish N removed relative to fertilizer N exported (ratio fish N:fertilizer N) reported as a percentage. b, The ratio of fish N removed to fertilizer N entering 58 different large marine ecosystems (LMEs) for the year 1995.

The paper shows that fishing can help reduce the impacts of nitrogen pollution. But that nitrogen pollution that destroys fisheries, through the creation of anoxic “dead zones”, can make nitrogen pollution even worse by removing a major source of nitrogen withdrawals. Similarly, overfishing the reduces the amount of fish biomass that can be removed from a system will make the system more vulnerable to eutrophication.

Mapping Coastal Eutrophication

Current industrial agricultural practices produce a tradeoff between agricultural production and the quality of coastal ecosystems, because agricultural fertilizers that increase crop yields lead to the creation of low oxygen hypoxic areas in areas which receive a lot of nutrient rich runoff.

The World Resources Institute and Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has updated Diaz et al’s recent map of coastal eutrophication. They identify 169 hypoxic areas, 233 areas of concern, and 13 systems in recovery.

Coastal Eutrophication WRI 2008

The WRI Earthtrends weblog writes about the project:

The map shows three types of eutrophic zones:

(1) Documented hypoxic areas – Areas with scientific evidence that hypoxia was caused, at least in part, by an overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorus. Hypoxic areas have oxygen levels low enough to inhibit the existence of marine life.

(2) Areas of concern – Systems that exhibit effects of eutrophication, including elevated nitrogen and phosphorus levels, elevated chlorophyll levels, harmful algal blooms, changes in the benthic community, damage to coral reefs, and fish kills. These systems are impaired by nutrients and are possibly at risk of developing hypoxia. Some of the systems may already be experiencing hypoxia, but lack conclusive scientific evidence of the condition.

(3) Systems in recovery – Areas that once exhibited low dissolved oxygen levels and hypoxia, but are now improving. For example, the Black Sea recovery is largely due to the economic collapse of Eastern Europe in the 1990s, which greatly reduced fertilizer use. Others, like Boston Harbor in the United States and the Mersey Estuary in the United Kingdom also have improved water quality resulting from better industrial and wastewater controls.

Given the state of global data, the actual number of eutrophic and hypoxic areas around the world is likely to be greater than the 415 listed here. The most under-represented region is Asia. Asia has relatively few documented eutrophic and hypoxic areas despite large increases in intensive farming methods, industrial development, and population growth over the past 20 years. Africa, South America, and the Caribbean also have few reliable sources of coastal water quality data.

A more detailed analysis of this data set will be available in February 2008 in a policy note entitled Eutrophication and Hypoxia in Coastal Areas: A Global Assessment of the State of Knowledge (a list of related publications can be found here.

Climate foresight and building resilience

In a WorldChanging article Conservation Easements, Climate Foresight and Resilience Alex Steffen asks if “resilience” is a good way to describe the need for resilience:

If the nature of even non-catastrophic climate change is to make the world much more unpredictable, adaptation is impossible in a meaningful sense.What is possible is planned resilience: we can make our own systems more rugged and distributed, our natural systems protected and managed in ways that best preserve their ability to respond to (and incorporate) disturbance while preserving ecosystem services and biodiversity. We can plan to become good at dealing with chaos. But that is quite different than adapting to a singular change, and it takes dramatically different kinds of priorities.

Now, “Resilience!” is not exactly be the battle-cry we’re looking for. Anyone else got a suggest about how we might compellingly describe the goal here?

Fish Piracy Feeds the Global Rich

A New York Times article Europe’s Appetite for Seafood Propels Illegal Trade describes how fisheries collapse is leading roving bandits to scoop up the world’s valuable fish leaving little behind for local fishers:

Fish is now the most traded animal commodity on the planet, with about 100 million tons of wild and farmed fish sold each year. Europe has suddenly become the world’s largest market for fish, worth more than 14 billion euros, or about $22 billion a year. Europe’s appetite has grown as its native fish stocks have shrunk so that Europe now needs to import 60 percent of fish sold in the region, according to the European Union.

In Europe, the imbalance between supply and demand has led to a thriving illegal trade. Some 50 percent of the fish sold in the European Union originates in developing nations, and much of it is laundered like contraband, caught and shipped illegally beyond the limits of government quotas or treaties. The smuggling operation is well financed and sophisticated, carried out by large-scale mechanized fishing fleets able to sweep up more fish than ever, chasing threatened stocks from ocean to ocean.