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Canada made big promises to save nature at COP15. Will it follow through?

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Tuesday, December 20, 2022

By Ainslie Cruickshank After some tense moments, including a brief breakdown in talks, 196 countries reached a new global agreement at COP15 to stem the stunning loss of biodiversity worldwide. Though not quite as ambitious as many hoped it would be, the new Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework lays out a series of 23 targets that — if met — could help prevent further extinctions. Among the targets, countries agreed to ensure at least 30 per cent of the world’s land and waters are effectively conserved and managed by 2030, to significantly reduce the risk of extinction, to phase out or reform at least $500 billion in subsidies that harm biodiversity and to reduce the risks from pesticides and other harmful chemicals by at least half.  Get The Narwhal in your inbox! People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism. Get The Narwhal in your inbox! People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism. “The health of our forests, oceans, animals and all biodiversity underpins the very strength and stability of our societies. We cannot take that for granted any longer,” Environment and Climate Change Canada Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a statement Dec. 19 from COP15, the United Nations biodiversity summit held in Montreal during the last two weeks. “Here in Montreal, we have set a new course. Now it is time to deliver,” he said. “This agreement is a critical achievement and if implemented fully could take great strides towards combatting extinction and conserving biodiversity,” Charlotte Dawe, a policy and conservation campaigner with Wilderness Committee, said in a statement Monday. She warned, however, “there is much more work to be done and governments must use policy change to achieve the targets.”  “Currently, businesses are trusted to ‘do the right thing’ when it comes to nature protection, and they fail every time,” Dawe said. Charlotte Dawe, a policy and conservation campaigner with Wilderness Committee, told The Narwhal at COP15 B.C.’s green “veneer” is starting to crack, with the scars of forestry visible throughout the province, which is home to most species at risk in Canada. Photos: Stephanie Foden / The Narwhal The question now is whether governments will take the necessary action to meet the targets they’ve adopted. Their track record so far is poor.  Countries failed to fully achieve any of the targets adopted in 2010 under the previous agreement.  And in the 30 years since the first countries signed onto the international biodiversity treaty, under which these 10-year agreements are negotiated, the state of nature has declined dramatically. Today, biodiversity is shrinking faster than at any other point in human history. Numerous species have already been erased from the planet and one million more are at risk of extinction. Canada made big conservation commitments at COP15, but big promises have been made before In Canada, more than 5,000 wild species are at some risk of extinction, according to the most comprehensive assessment of biodiversity ever undertaken here. Guilbeault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled a renewed commitment to the conservation of biodiversity with a flurry of announcements at COP15. They committed $800 million over seven years to four Indigenous-led conservation initiatives, announced support for the First Nations Guardians Network, next steps towards the creation of two significant Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and committed millions of dollars for ocean restoration projects. The first in a series of bilateral nature agreements between the federal and provincial and territorial governments was also announced between Canada and the Yukon. The long awaited agreement with B.C. is expected in the New Year.  Throughout the conference, Canada pushed countries to formally adopt the 30 per cent protection by 2030 target (commonly referred to as 30 by 30) at COP15, positioning it as a sort of north star for biodiversity in the same way that limiting warming to 1.5 C is for climate change. As countries negotiated a new global agreement to reverse the biodiversity, hundreds of people took to the streets in Montreal call for major changes to save nature. Photos: Stephanie Foden / The Narwhal Trudeau told reporters during a roundtable discussion he was optimistic Canada had a clear path to conserving 25 per cent of lands and waters by 2025 on its way to meeting the 30 by 30 goal. (Canada had conserved 13.5 per cent of lands and freshwater as of the end of last year and 14.66 per cent of marine areas as of June.) At the same time, the federal government committed to a major shift in the way conservation and land use decisions are made to one that ensures Indigenous nations are in the “driver’s seat.” “They’re saying everything we want to hear, but there’s a little bit of a ‘well, let’s just see,’ because the track record — it’s not a great track record,” Clarissa Sampson, an ecological economist at the David Suzuki Foundation, told The Narwhal.  In B.C. — the province with the highest number of species at risk — Premier David Eby recently directed his new minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, Nathan Cullen, to work towards protecting 30 per cent of B.C.’s lands by 2030, which will be critical to meeting Canada’s international targets because the province has currently only protected about 15 per cent of land. In a sit-down interview with The Narwhal at COP15, B.C. Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation Minister Josie Osborne and Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman said the province is also changing the way land use decisions get made. Heyman noted the province has committed to implementing the recommendations from a 2020 review of the way it manages old-growth forests. A key recommendation was to shift away from an industry-first approach to one that prioritizes ecosystem health and determines from there how economic activity fits in, he said. “To me, it’s a matter of understanding that both environmental and ecosystem health and economic activity are interdependent,” Heyman said. Osborne added that the creation of the Ministry of Water, Land and Stewardship was a significant step as it brought land-use planning and natural resource policy-making under one roof so to speak. “That really is a recognition of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and the fact that we must do business differently in the province,” she said. Osborne said B.C. is shifting its approach to conservation away from the “hard edges” of parks and other protected areas, echoing comments Trudeau made earlier this month about leaving a parks-style approach to conservation behind. Instead, the province is looking at ways to preserve “the ecosystem services that we all rely on, but at the same time, allow for certain activities done in the right place in the right way by the right people,” Osborne said. Conservation groups worry B.C. may rely on ‘fancy’ accounting to meet goals Internal government documents obtained by The Narwhal suggest B.C. plans to rely on old-growth management areas, ungulate winter range designations and wildlife habitat areas — which do not ensure long term protection — to meet its conservation goals. Dawe worries the approach is “a fancy way of basically hitting those 30 by 30 targets on paper.” “In actuality there’s no way you can log a forest and call it protected,” she said. “Anyone now that goes for a drive in a forested area or a mountainous area will see scars, cutblock scars across the land, so I think this green idea of B.C. is really starting to crack and break,” Dawe said. Old-growth forests hold an immense amount of biodiversity. When they’re destroyed, so is their ability to support plants and animals, including endangered caribou and spotted owls. Their loss is also felt deeply by communities. Caribou herds have experienced dramatic declines in B.C.’s Peace River region, where First Nations are leading a costly maternity penning effort to bring one herd back from the brink. Logging, coal mining and other resource projects have whittled away caribou habitat in the region. Photos: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal “Since I’ve been in Montreal at COP15 they’re going full bore deforesting my ancient lands. And I don’t know what to say, it’s disheartening,” Kwakiutl Hereditary Chief Walas Namugwis, whose English name is David Mungo Knox, told The Narwhal. “We’re not us without our old-growth trees, we can’t make our totem poles, we can’t carve our big houses, we can’t carve canoes, without our medicines we can’t heal. So it’s another cultural genocide,” he said, at a hotel restaurant across the street from Montreal’s Palais des Congrès where negotiations were underway. Back in his home territory on Vancouver Island, trees were being cut down near where coho salmon had recently spawned and in the habitat of the northern red-legged frog, a species of special concern under the federal Species at Risk Act. “Governments need to grow a spine, push back against big corporate industrial market approaches and then let a more diverse economy flourish,” Mark Worthing, director of Awi’nakola Foundation, a new organization that combines Indigenous Kknowledge, scientific research and the arts to conserve and restore forests. “We’ve lost the taste for announcements,” he said. “Stop talking about it, start doing it.” “That’s pretty much been my take home from this too. We need radical change and that needs to come now,” Ma’amtagila Hereditary Chief Makwala, whose English name is Rande Cook, said.  Old-growth forests support an immense amount of biodiversity and are intricately tied to the Indigenous communities that stewarded the forests for millennia. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal “We’re in a place right now where it literally is about the planet and we’re putting a timeline on the existence of humanity. For the health of all of us we need to make some real radical changes,” Cook, who is also part of the Awi’nakola Foundation, said. Asked at what point the B.C. government would, for instance, issue a hard stop of logging in critical caribou habitat, Osborne noted the “importance of land use planning with Indigenous nations and really truly listening.” “So incorporating those worldviews, those values and understanding what the solutions are we can provide together so that we know and we agree together enough is enough,” she said. Osborne added that it’s also important to understand decisions around resource and land use impact communities. “Simply stopping an activity overnight isn’t going to provide the kind of assistance or security or ability for a community to determine what its next steps are, how people are going to continue to support themselves and their communities and that has to be part of this conversation as well,” she said.

By Ainslie Cruickshank 196 countries set new global targets to stop the biodiversity crisis. The test now is to put words into action

Delegates clap as 196 countries agreed to a new global biodiversity framwork to save nature against a turqoise background that says 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference COP15

After some tense moments, including a brief breakdown in talks, 196 countries reached a new global agreement at COP15 to stem the stunning loss of biodiversity worldwide.

Though not quite as ambitious as many hoped it would be, the new Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework lays out a series of 23 targets that — if met — could help prevent further extinctions.

Among the targets, countries agreed to ensure at least 30 per cent of the world’s land and waters are effectively conserved and managed by 2030, to significantly reduce the risk of extinction, to phase out or reform at least $500 billion in subsidies that harm biodiversity and to reduce the risks from pesticides and other harmful chemicals by at least half. 

Get The Narwhal in your inbox!
People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.
Get The Narwhal in your inbox!
People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.

“The health of our forests, oceans, animals and all biodiversity underpins the very strength and stability of our societies. We cannot take that for granted any longer,” Environment and Climate Change Canada Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a statement Dec. 19 from COP15, the United Nations biodiversity summit held in Montreal during the last two weeks.

“Here in Montreal, we have set a new course. Now it is time to deliver,” he said.

“This agreement is a critical achievement and if implemented fully could take great strides towards combatting extinction and conserving biodiversity,” Charlotte Dawe, a policy and conservation campaigner with Wilderness Committee, said in a statement Monday.

She warned, however, “there is much more work to be done and governments must use policy change to achieve the targets.” 

“Currently, businesses are trusted to ‘do the right thing’ when it comes to nature protection, and they fail every time,” Dawe said.

The question now is whether governments will take the necessary action to meet the targets they’ve adopted. Their track record so far is poor. 

Countries failed to fully achieve any of the targets adopted in 2010 under the previous agreement. 

And in the 30 years since the first countries signed onto the international biodiversity treaty, under which these 10-year agreements are negotiated, the state of nature has declined dramatically.

Today, biodiversity is shrinking faster than at any other point in human history. Numerous species have already been erased from the planet and one million more are at risk of extinction.

Canada made big conservation commitments at COP15, but big promises have been made before

In Canada, more than 5,000 wild species are at some risk of extinction, according to the most comprehensive assessment of biodiversity ever undertaken here.

Guilbeault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled a renewed commitment to the conservation of biodiversity with a flurry of announcements at COP15.

They committed $800 million over seven years to four Indigenous-led conservation initiatives, announced support for the First Nations Guardians Network, next steps towards the creation of two significant Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and committed millions of dollars for ocean restoration projects. The first in a series of bilateral nature agreements between the federal and provincial and territorial governments was also announced between Canada and the Yukon. The long awaited agreement with B.C. is expected in the New Year. 

Throughout the conference, Canada pushed countries to formally adopt the 30 per cent protection by 2030 target (commonly referred to as 30 by 30) at COP15, positioning it as a sort of north star for biodiversity in the same way that limiting warming to 1.5 C is for climate change.

Trudeau told reporters during a roundtable discussion he was optimistic Canada had a clear path to conserving 25 per cent of lands and waters by 2025 on its way to meeting the 30 by 30 goal. (Canada had conserved 13.5 per cent of lands and freshwater as of the end of last year and 14.66 per cent of marine areas as of June.)

At the same time, the federal government committed to a major shift in the way conservation and land use decisions are made to one that ensures Indigenous nations are in the “driver’s seat.”

“They’re saying everything we want to hear, but there’s a little bit of a ‘well, let’s just see,’ because the track record — it’s not a great track record,” Clarissa Sampson, an ecological economist at the David Suzuki Foundation, told The Narwhal. 

In B.C. — the province with the highest number of species at risk — Premier David Eby recently directed his new minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, Nathan Cullen, to work towards protecting 30 per cent of B.C.’s lands by 2030, which will be critical to meeting Canada’s international targets because the province has currently only protected about 15 per cent of land.

In a sit-down interview with The Narwhal at COP15, B.C. Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation Minister Josie Osborne and Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman said the province is also changing the way land use decisions get made.

Heyman noted the province has committed to implementing the recommendations from a 2020 review of the way it manages old-growth forests. A key recommendation was to shift away from an industry-first approach to one that prioritizes ecosystem health and determines from there how economic activity fits in, he said.

“To me, it’s a matter of understanding that both environmental and ecosystem health and economic activity are interdependent,” Heyman said.

Osborne added that the creation of the Ministry of Water, Land and Stewardship was a significant step as it brought land-use planning and natural resource policy-making under one roof so to speak.

“That really is a recognition of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and the fact that we must do business differently in the province,” she said.

Osborne said B.C. is shifting its approach to conservation away from the “hard edges” of parks and other protected areas, echoing comments Trudeau made earlier this month about leaving a parks-style approach to conservation behind.

Instead, the province is looking at ways to preserve “the ecosystem services that we all rely on, but at the same time, allow for certain activities done in the right place in the right way by the right people,” Osborne said.

Conservation groups worry B.C. may rely on ‘fancy’ accounting to meet goals

Internal government documents obtained by The Narwhal suggest B.C. plans to rely on old-growth management areas, ungulate winter range designations and wildlife habitat areas — which do not ensure long term protection — to meet its conservation goals.

Dawe worries the approach is “a fancy way of basically hitting those 30 by 30 targets on paper.”

“In actuality there’s no way you can log a forest and call it protected,” she said.

“Anyone now that goes for a drive in a forested area or a mountainous area will see scars, cutblock scars across the land, so I think this green idea of B.C. is really starting to crack and break,” Dawe said.

Old-growth forests hold an immense amount of biodiversity. When they’re destroyed, so is their ability to support plants and animals, including endangered caribou and spotted owls. Their loss is also felt deeply by communities.

“Since I’ve been in Montreal at COP15 they’re going full bore deforesting my ancient lands. And I don’t know what to say, it’s disheartening,” Kwakiutl Hereditary Chief Walas Namugwis, whose English name is David Mungo Knox, told The Narwhal.

“We’re not us without our old-growth trees, we can’t make our totem poles, we can’t carve our big houses, we can’t carve canoes, without our medicines we can’t heal. So it’s another cultural genocide,” he said, at a hotel restaurant across the street from Montreal’s Palais des Congrès where negotiations were underway.

Back in his home territory on Vancouver Island, trees were being cut down near where coho salmon had recently spawned and in the habitat of the northern red-legged frog, a species of special concern under the federal Species at Risk Act.

“Governments need to grow a spine, push back against big corporate industrial market approaches and then let a more diverse economy flourish,” Mark Worthing, director of Awi’nakola Foundation, a new organization that combines Indigenous Kknowledge, scientific research and the arts to conserve and restore forests.

“We’ve lost the taste for announcements,” he said. “Stop talking about it, start doing it.”

“That’s pretty much been my take home from this too. We need radical change and that needs to come now,” Ma’amtagila Hereditary Chief Makwala, whose English name is Rande Cook, said. 

Old growth forests seen from above
Old-growth forests support an immense amount of biodiversity and are intricately tied to the Indigenous communities that stewarded the forests for millennia. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

“We’re in a place right now where it literally is about the planet and we’re putting a timeline on the existence of humanity. For the health of all of us we need to make some real radical changes,” Cook, who is also part of the Awi’nakola Foundation, said.

Asked at what point the B.C. government would, for instance, issue a hard stop of logging in critical caribou habitat, Osborne noted the “importance of land use planning with Indigenous nations and really truly listening.”

“So incorporating those worldviews, those values and understanding what the solutions are we can provide together so that we know and we agree together enough is enough,” she said.

Osborne added that it’s also important to understand decisions around resource and land use impact communities.

“Simply stopping an activity overnight isn’t going to provide the kind of assistance or security or ability for a community to determine what its next steps are, how people are going to continue to support themselves and their communities and that has to be part of this conversation as well,” she said.

Read the full story here.
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Investing in nature's intrinsic value

Imagine a market where nature's preservation, not destruction, is profitable.Lydia DePillis reports for The New York Times.In short:"Natural asset companies" propose valuing ecosystems for their preservation, potentially transforming them into profitable investments.The concept, though facing opposition, aims to integrate nature's value into the market, beyond traditional philanthropy and government efforts.This innovative approach has garnered interest from environmentalists, investors, and philanthropists, despite regulatory and ideological challenges.Key quote:"All of these things, if you think about it, are social agreements to a degree. And the beauty of a financial system is between a willing buyer and seller, the underlying becomes true."— Douglas Eger, founder of Intrinsic Exchange GroupWhy this matters:This idea represents a novel approach that could significantly impact health outcomes by fostering ecosystems that clean air and water, crucial for public health. This concept, blending environmentalism with market mechanisms, could redefine conservation strategies on a global scale.Experts call for a national conservation network.

Imagine a market where nature's preservation, not destruction, is profitable.Lydia DePillis reports for The New York Times.In short:"Natural asset companies" propose valuing ecosystems for their preservation, potentially transforming them into profitable investments.The concept, though facing opposition, aims to integrate nature's value into the market, beyond traditional philanthropy and government efforts.This innovative approach has garnered interest from environmentalists, investors, and philanthropists, despite regulatory and ideological challenges.Key quote:"All of these things, if you think about it, are social agreements to a degree. And the beauty of a financial system is between a willing buyer and seller, the underlying becomes true."— Douglas Eger, founder of Intrinsic Exchange GroupWhy this matters:This idea represents a novel approach that could significantly impact health outcomes by fostering ecosystems that clean air and water, crucial for public health. This concept, blending environmentalism with market mechanisms, could redefine conservation strategies on a global scale.Experts call for a national conservation network.

The End of the Quantum Ice Age: Room Temperature Breakthrough

Researchers at EPFL have achieved a milestone in quantum mechanics by controlling quantum phenomena at room temperature, overcoming the longstanding barrier of needing extreme cold....

Conceptual art of the operating device, consisting of a nanopillar-loaded drum sandwiched by two periodically segmented mirrors, allowing the laser light to strongly interact with the drum quantum mechanically at room temperature. Credit: EPFL & Second Bay StudiosResearchers at EPFL have achieved a milestone in quantum mechanics by controlling quantum phenomena at room temperature, overcoming the longstanding barrier of needing extreme cold. This opens up new possibilities for quantum technology applications and the study of macroscopic quantum systems.In the realm of quantum mechanics, the ability to observe and control quantum phenomena at room temperature has long been elusive, especially on a large or “macroscopic” scale. Traditionally, such observations have been confined to environments near absolute zero, where quantum effects are easier to detect. However, the requirement for extreme cold has been a major hurdle, limiting practical applications of quantum technologies.Pioneering Study at EPFLNow, a study led by Tobias J. Kippenberg and Nils Johan Engelsen at EPFL, redefines the boundaries of what’s possible. The pioneering work blends quantum physics and mechanical engineering to achieve control of quantum phenomena at room temperature. “Reaching the regime of room temperature quantum optomechanics has been an open challenge for decades,” says Kippenberg. “Our work realizes effectively the Heisenberg microscope – long thought to be only a theoretical toy model.”In their experimental setup, published today (February 14) in Nature, the researchers created an ultra-low noise optomechanical system – a setup where light and mechanical motion interconnect, allowing them to study and manipulate how light influences moving objects with high precision.The crystal-like cavity mirrors with the drum in the middle. Credit: Guanhao Huang/EPFLThe main problem with room temperature is thermal noise, which perturbs delicate quantum dynamics. To minimize that, the scientists used cavity mirrors, which are specialized mirrors that bounce light back and forth inside a confined space (the cavity), effectively “trapping” it and enhancing its interaction with the mechanical elements in the system. To reduce the thermal noise, the mirrors are patterned with crystal-like periodic (“phononic crystal”) structures.Innovative Experimental SetupAnother crucial component was a 4mm drum-like device called a mechanical oscillator, which interacts with light inside the cavity. Its relatively large size and design are key to isolating it from environmental noise, making it possible to detect subtle quantum phenomena at room temperature. “The drum we use in this experiment is the culmination of many years of effort to create mechanical oscillators that are well-isolated from the environment,” says Engelsen.“The techniques we used to deal with notorious and complex noise sources are of high relevance and impact to the broader community of precision sensing and measurement,” says Guanhao Huang, one of the two PhD students leading the project.The setup allowed the researchers to achieve “optical squeezing”, a quantum phenomenon where certain properties of light, like its intensity or phase, are manipulated to reduce the fluctuations in one variable at the expense of increasing fluctuations in the other, as dictated by Heisenberg’s principle.By demonstrating optical squeezing at room temperature in their system, the researchers showed that they could effectively control and observe quantum phenomena in a macroscopic system without the need for extremely low temperatures. Top of FormThe team believes the ability to operate the system at room temperature will expand access to quantum optomechanical systems, which are established testbeds for quantum measurement and quantum mechanics at macroscopic scales.“The system we developed might facilitate new hybrid quantum systems where the mechanical drum strongly interacts with different objects, such as trapped clouds of atoms,” adds Alberto Beccari, the other PhD student leading the study. “These systems are useful for quantum information, and help us understand how to create large, complex quantum states.”Reference: “Room-temperature quantum optomechanics using an ultra-low noise cavity” 14 February 2024, Nature.DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06997-3

Can we save nature with crazy shapes?

The U.N. wants to protect 30 percent of the planet. Many of the areas it counts towards that goal are small and oddly shaped. Can contorted shapes save nature?

It was a good day to be a nature lover, or so it seemed. On Dec. 19, 2022, at the U.N. biodiversity summit in Montreal, the countries of the world announced a bold plan to save the planet’s wildlife by setting aside 30 percent of their area for natural habitat. Environmental groups hailed the agreement as “monumental” and “a historic plan to protect life on Earth.”But Santiago Schauman was a little skeptical. The PhD student at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council in San Luis, Argentina, wanted to know: which 30 percent?In research published in the journal Nature Sustainability, Schauman and colleagues analyzed the shapes of more than 200,000 protected areas in the database the U.N. uses to track progress toward its 30-percent goal. They found many protected areas punctured with holes, like moth-eaten rags. Some areas are narrow and twirl like noodles. Others are contorted like gerrymandered congressional districts.Size matters, but shape matters just as much, Schauman told me. Large, round tracts of land are simply better at protecting wildlife than smaller, misshapen ones. “Nobody is discussing,” Schauman said, “that it is not the same to protect spaghetti as big, compact areas.”What’s at stakeWildlife is in peril.An estimated 1 million species of plants and animals are in danger of extinction, more than at any other period in human history. An international agreement to protect natural habitats addresses what many see as a crisis in the natural world.Saving nature can conflict with other goals.Bringing billions of people in Africa, Asia and South America into the developed world will require resources. After all, our modern world is built with stuff we get out of the ground. In the 21st century, finding nearly a third of the world’s land to protect will be very difficult.What does “protected area” really mean?Today, protected areas cover 16 percent of the planet’s land, according to the U.N. database. The 30-percent target would almost double that. If the U.N. only counts vast tracts of wilderness toward its goal, it will make slow progress and could struggle to build enthusiasm for future conservation efforts. But if its standards are too lax, that 30 percent will be meaningless.Ecologists are wary of oddly shaped protected areas because they have more edges where nature and humans collide. Schauman and his colleagues found that one-third of all the world’s protected land is within two kilometers of its borders, exposing wildlife to mining, logging, farming, ranching and other things humans do to mess with nature.The finding “is a very important contribution to the scientific literature,” Lydia Beaudrot, an ecologist at Rice University who was not involved in the research, told me in an email. Beaudrot pointed to a peer-reviewed study she co-authored last year that found lower survival rates among tropical wildlife near the edges of protected areas than in the interior.Schauman recently took me on a virtual tour of the world’s weird protected areas. As he showed me these strange shapes, I felt as if I were lying in a field, recognizing figures in the clouds.He panned to a slender rabbit perched on his hind legs, waving a flag to the west. It was the Mongaup Valley Wildlife Management Area, about five miles northwest of the point where New York meets Pennsylvania and New Jersey. If it were a circle of the same area, its center would be 1.8 miles from the rim, but its odd shape means all of its area is within a half mile of the edge.Mongaup Valley Wildlife Management Area, N.Y.Mongaup Valley WildlifeManagement Area, N.Y.This land used to be owned by a power company, which built hydroelectric dams along the Mongaup River. When the company found it had more land than it needed, New York State snatched it up. It’s now a winter sanctuary for as many as 100 bald eagles, which prey on fish in the reservoirs above the dams.Like many protected areas, Mongaup Valley was cobbled together from what was left over after people were done with it. That’s often the best conservationists can do, said Heather Bingham, who leads the U.N.’s Protected Planet team responsible for maintaining the database and tracking progress on conservation goals.“Designating a small protected area is sometimes the best choice for biodiversity, for example, to protect an endemic species or a small population,” Bingham said. “Or it might be better than taking no action at all.”As Schauman and I scanned the map, he showed me how protected areas in rich, industrialized countries like the United States tend to be fragmented and contorted to accommodate towns, cities, ranches and farms.“Developed countries preserve the nature in a very different way than developing countries,” Schauman said as he panned to a fat, somewhat jagged potato in southwest Angola. It was the Bicuari National Park, a 3,050 square mile tract of land whose innermost point is more than 24 miles from the border.Bicuari National Park, AngolaBut borders like Bicuari’s do not guarantee protection. In the early 1980s, the army used the park to test explosives, decimating the natural habitat, according to one account of Angola’s decades-long civil war. Since the conflict ended in 2002, elephants, zebras and other animals have returned, but poaching continues.Bicuari’s woes highlight a shortcoming of the research — a protected area’s borders don’t reveal what goes on inside. Some protected areas “really are just paper tigers and there is not much actual conservation on the ground,” said Michael Drescher, an environmental scientist and director of the Heritage Resources Centre at the University of Waterloo.As countries in the developing world grow richer, pressure on areas like Bicuari will only increase. In Schauman’s view, countries like Angola or his own country of Argentina should find big, round areas to protect while they still can.Otherwise, they might end up with areas like the Oak Creek Wildlife Area Complex west of Yakima, Wash., which resembles nothing so much as a broken, melted checkerboard.Oak Creek Wildlife Area Complex, Wash.The checkerboard’s origin dates back to Thomas Jefferson, who proposed parceling out land in rectangles as the United States expanded west. In the 19th century, the government ceded every other parcel along the transcontinental rail line to the railroad companies. In Eastern Washington, the Northern Pacific Railroad Company got half the squares, and Uncle Sam kept the other half.When the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife set out to protect land in the area, it could only buy the half of the parcels that were privately held, resulting in the checkerboard shape. Over time, the state has managed to fill in some of the gaps by acquiring more parcels.The shape may not be ideal, but the checkerboard protects some of what remains of the endangered shrubsteppe habitat, an arid, rolling blanket of sagebrush and bluegrass that is now mostly occupied by humans. Without the checkerboard, the greater sage grouse, whose numbers have dwindled by the millions, would be in even greater peril.Conservationists can do a pretty good job with even odder shapes. That spaghetti Schauman mentioned is actually the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway along the Wisconsin-Minnesota border. It protects 255 miles of river, but its deepest interior is a third of a mile from its edge.St. Croix National Scenic RiverwayThe riverway is, as superintendent Craig Hansen described it to me, “a thin, narrow ribbon of protection.” Inside, the water is clean and filled with fish, and wetlands and bottomland forests along the river provide habitat for native species and rare birds like the golden-winged warbler.But the thin boundaries can make protection challenging. Nearby towns and farms can send polluted storm runoff into the water. Noise from roads and bridges can startle wildlife. Birds can collide with power lines and cell towers.Do shapes like the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway belong in the database? On the one hand, those are often the only shapes available. But Schauman argues we must at least acknowledge that the U.N.’s grand scheme to save nature often has less to do with preserving vast swaths of pristine landscape as stitching together a patchwork of contorted polygons.“Yes, it’s nature,” Schauman said. “But it’s clearly a tricky strategy.”Check my workThe protected areas shown in this article can be found in the World Database of Protected Areas. I am grateful to Santiago Schauman for helping me make sense of this enormous database.The code I wrote to calculate the interior contours of protected areas can be found in this computational notebook. The algorithms in that notebook were implemented by Volodymyr Agafonkin and Philippe Rivière. I am especially grateful to Philippe for helping me get the code to work with random polygons.

England brings in biodiversity net gain rules to force builders to compensate for loss of nature

From this week, developments must result in more or better natural habitat than before, in a move hailed as one of the world’s most ambitiousEngland is launching a biodiversity credit scheme this week that attempts to force all new road and housebuilding projects to benefit nature, rather than damage it.The “nature market”, called biodiversity net gain (BNG), means all new building projects must achieve a 10% net gain in biodiversity or habitat. If a woodland is destroyed by a road, for example, another needs to be recreated. This can happen either on site or elsewhere. Continue reading...

England is launching a biodiversity credit scheme this week that attempts to force all new road and housebuilding projects to benefit nature, rather than damage it.The “nature market”, called biodiversity net gain (BNG), means all new building projects must achieve a 10% net gain in biodiversity or habitat. If a woodland is destroyed by a road, for example, another needs to be recreated. This can happen either on site or elsewhere.The requirement becomes law under the Town and Country Planning Act on 12 February for larger sites, and on 2 April 2024 for smaller sites.What are biodiversity credits?Biodiversity credits are about putting a financial value on plants, animals or habitats. This means their ecological value can be bought and sold for money. A credit represents a "unit" of positive action, such as creating a new habitat, or preventing the loss of an existing one.This value must be scientifically agreed on so the credits can be traded and are traceable. The idea is to create financial incentives to preserve biodiversity.What are biodiversity offsets?If specific developments (such as mines or construction) are driving the loss of wildlife habitats, then conservation action can be funded to make habitats richer or larger elsewhere to compensate. That action could help “offset” the loss. In this sense, that development could be said to have “no net loss” of biodiversity. If biodiversity is increasing overall, this is called “biodiversity net gain”.Scientists say biodiversity offsets should be applied as a last resort, meaning that they should only be used if avoidance, mitigation and restoration have all been tried first. The offset is seen as compensating for unavoidable harms.What is a nature market?It is when people buy and sell goods or services linked to ecosystems. This trade is made in credits. Many governments are keen on creating "nature markets" because they want private finance to help fund nature restoration (which is often strapped for cash).Some people think these markets will help generate funds for nature restoration, while others feel uncomfortable about putting a price on nature and feel it is part of a concerning trend to commodify the natural world.The scheme will make people think about how to minimise and mitigate the ecosystem impact of new developments, said Natalie Duffus, a biology and geographer researcher from the University of Oxford, who analysed the impact of BNG trials on conservation. “In theory, it could restore lots of habitats,” she added.The government has a target of building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. Land affected by those developments must be compensated for under the new rules.Internationally, “it’s one of the most ambitious schemes we’ve seen”, said Duffus. “Other places are watching us and seeing how it unfolds. If done well I think it could inspire a lot of other markets to develop in different countries.”Those already hoping to copy the idea or use it to develop their own include Sweden, Singapore, Scotland and Wales, she said.Sophus zu Ermgassen, an ecological economist from the University of Oxford, said England’s scheme is “world-leading in its scope” in that it addresses all new construction, and covers all natural habitats. “Other offset policies around the world have either a wealth of exemptions or deal with one specific set of impacts,” he said.One major shortfall for biodiversity markets around the world is a lack of demand. To date, only $8m (£6.5m) has been committed or pledged for biodiversity credits worldwide. Globally, funding for biodiversity is $169bn annually, most of which comes from domestic public funding. It needs to increase to $200bn from all sources (public, private, domestic and international) by 2030, according to the UN.“Demand for biodiversity credits, or offsets, is really limited unless there is some sort of fundamental driver,” zu Ermgassen said, adding that having a mandatory market for all developers helps these things scale up and draw in more investment and activity than they would otherwise.Dillington Carr, a site of special scientific interest in Norfolk and part of the Wendling Beck pilot BNG environment project. Photograph: Courtesy of Wendling Beck Environment projectBNG is regulated by several bodies, including local authorities and government agencies. This is seen a strength of the scheme, as it avoids the problem of “marking your own homework” associated with voluntary markets.However, regulators lack the staff to check the pledged habitat benefits actually materialise. Zu Ermgassen was part of a study that found that more than a quarter of BNG units are at risk of leading to no tangible increases in biodiversity because there is no monitoring system in place. There are also concerns that there are too few ecologists to oversee habitats or score them correctly. Some may lack independence if they are employed by the developer.Tom Oliver, a professor of applied ecology at the University of Reading, said environmental regulations are typically let down by lax enforcement. “BNG’s success hinges on effective environmental regulation, monitoring and policing, and yet when you look at all our past case studies they clearly show a failure of environmental enforcement and policing,” he said. “You’re putting in a new approach that relies on mechanisms working when they don’t.”Much of the off-site habitat restoration demanded by the scheme – including the creation and protection of wetlands, wildflower meadows or woodlands – is expected to happen on farmland. However, there may also be a lack of farmers signing up, as it is not clear how big the market will be.Ben Taylor, the manager of Iford Estate farm near Lewes in East Sussex, said betting on this emerging market is “crystal ball stuff”, with many farmers hesitant to take the financial risk.However, Amanda Williams, the head of environmental sustainability at the Chartered Institute of Building, said it is good the legislation has been launched after a number of delays.“Looking into the future, the current BNG legislation does not address construction’s full impact on nature as it excludes the production and processing of construction materials, such as timber and sand, and minerals including gravel, iron ore and rocks, and how they affect biodiversity,” she said. “This is something that in time will need to be addressed.”Iford Estate farm in East Sussex where land is being given over to wildflower meadows as part of the pilot scheme. Photograph: Jill Mead/The GuardianIn the past decade, more private players have been entering the nature-conservation space, and the international voluntary biodiversity credit markets is growing.“The very first trades are starting to happen in these markets, it is super early days,” said zu Ermgassen. “There is no universally agreed standard, there are no universally agreed anything – it’s very much the piloting and innovating phase of that system.”The private sector is increasingly becoming a source of finance for biodiversity credits, but governments must provide the resources to fund biodiversity, according to research by the Campaign for Nature.“Fundamentally, it is critical that our governments start to recognise biodiversity as the public good that it is, like law enforcement or defence,” said the lobby group’s report. “Public goods must be funded by governments or incorporated into private investment decision-making through public policy, regulations and incentives.”

Study: A New Force of Nature Is Reshaping the Planet

Drawing together an array of interdisciplinary studies across archaeology, ecology, anthropology, and evolutionary theory, Erle Ellis, professor of geography and environmental systems at the University...

Scientists Erle Ellis has synthesized interdisciplinary research to illustrate how human cultural practices have historically enabled the transformation of ecosystems, advancing from the use of fire to the development of global supply chains. Highlighting the Anthropocene’s environmental challenges, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, Ellis argues for leveraging human society’s social and cultural capabilities towards sustainable coexistence with nature, emphasizing cooperation and the reimagining of our relationship with the environment for a better future.Drawing together an array of interdisciplinary studies across archaeology, ecology, anthropology, and evolutionary theory, Erle Ellis, professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, explains the evolution of the cultural practices that have enabled societies to develop unprecedented capabilities to scale up and transform the ecological systems that sustain them.From using fire to cook food and manage vegetation to the technologies and institutions that support intensive agriculture, increasingly urbanized societies, and global supply chains stretching across the planet, human societies have evolved the social, cultural, and ecological capabilities to reshape the planet and to thrive in the process.Ellis is a leading scientist investigating the Anthropocene, the current geological age defined by the human transformation of the planet. He is the founder and director of the Anthroecology Lab, which studies relationships between human societies and ecosystems at local to planetary scales with the aim of guiding more sustainable human relations with the biosphere. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Oxford Martin School, where he recently presented his work on Anthropocene opportunities. Towards a better futureWhile human societies have gained unprecedented capabilities to improve the quality and longevity of human lives, Ellis shows that the unintended consequences of these advances have generally been negative for the rest of life on Earth, from climate change to species extinctions to increasingly widespread pollution. These disruptive environmental challenges of the Anthropocene demand action if there is to be a better future both for people and for the rest of nature.Yet, as Ellis demonstrates, portraying the Anthropocene as an environmental crisis ignores its most important message. When people work together, they can indeed change the world for the better. The urgency of current planetary environmental challenges does not mean that narratives of environmental crisis, limits, and collapse will be more effective in bringing people together to shape a better future. Successful efforts to shape a better future over the long term require harnessing these efforts to the unprecedented social capabilities of human societies and empowering their application through widely shared human aspirations.Connecting to each other and natureEllis assesses the limits of the natural sciences to successfully forecast and manage the unprecedented transformative changes in societies, environments, and interactions that exemplify the Anthropocene condition. Rather, the capabilities that have always enabled human societies to survive and even thrive under challenging environmental conditions are social and cultural, built on the institutions, practices, and narratives that enable cooperative efforts to support the common good. And if there is to be a better future for the rest of nature, these social and cultural capabilities must be extended to life beyond human societies.“Re-emphasizing the kinship relationships among all living beings—our common evolutionary ancestry—is a start, combined with new ways to connect people and nature, from remote sensing to webcams, to nature apps, to community conservation reserves, corridor networks, and ecotourism,” shares Ellis. “Aspirations for a better future must also make peace with the past through restoration of Indigenous and traditional sovereignty over lands and waters.”Ellis emphasizes that the societal capabilities to shape a much better future than the one they are shaping now have existed for decades. The key to bringing them into action is to motivate their implementation by increasing public realization that these capabilities not only exist but can be implemented successfully through the unprecedented planetary power of our shared human aspirations to live in a better world.Reference: “The Anthropocene condition: evolving through social–ecological transformations” by Erle C. Ellis, 1 January 2024, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2022.0255

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