Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Cropped 24 April 2024: Mass coral bleaching; FAO report retraction request; Escazú Agreement

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Welcome to Carbon Brief’s Cropped. 
We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.

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Mass coral bleaching event

GLOBAL EVENT: The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced last week that the “world is currently experiencing a global coral bleaching event” – the fourth ever and the second this decade. “Mass bleaching” of reefs in every major ocean basin has been documented since early 2023, according to NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch. Dr Derek Manzello, the Coral Reef Watch coordinator, said: “When these events are sufficiently severe or prolonged, they can cause coral mortality, which hurts the people who depend on the coral reefs for their livelihoods.” However, death is not a foregone conclusion for bleached reefs – corals can recover if the heat stress diminishes. According to the New York Times, “scientists say it’s too soon to estimate what the extent of global mortality will be”.

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‘MAKE YOU WEEP’: In order to declare a global bleaching event, the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans must all have experienced bleaching in the past year and at least 12% of each basin’s reefs must be at temperatures that can cause bleaching, the New York Times reported. It added: “Currently, more than 54% of the world’s coral area has experienced bleaching-level heat stress in the past year.” Prof Terry Hughes, a coral-reef scientist at James Cook University in Australia, tweeted: “The extent AND severity of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 2024 is by far the worst ever recorded.” Hughes added that the results of the surveys “would make you weep”. Australia’s ABC News reported that “the devastation couldn’t be more clear”. 

BROADER IMPACTS: ABC News noted that the widespread bleaching “is a clear reflection of the extraordinary ocean temperatures in 2023, which have been rising for decades due to the burning of fossil fuels”. The onset of El Niño also “deserve[s] the blame”, according to Prof Matt England, a physical oceanographer from the University of New South Wales, who was quoted in the article. In the Conversation, four researchers from the University of Sydney wrote that “the damage done by heat underwater goes much further” than the reefs alone. They have already noted changes in algae and water chemistry at their research station, while “mobile macroinvertebrates”, such as starfish and sea urchins, “are in widespread decline”. They added: “Much of the damage done this summer [to reef ecosystems] will take months or even years to manifest.”

Oceans in focus

PIVOTAL PROTECTION: The Dominican Republic has become the first Caribbean nation to designate 30% of its marine areas as protected, El País reported – expanding its protected area coverage from 10.8% to 30.8% of its territorial waters. That includes a new protected area that spans the border between the Dominican Republic and Colombia, fulfilling an agreement that the two countries signed in 2022, the Spanish-language newspaper added. This part of the ocean “functions as a pivotal region for species connectivity”, Oceanographic wrote. The magazine added that it is “both a feeding ground and travel route” for seabirds, whales and other diverse marine species. 

BOTTOM-TRAWLING BAN: Greece will ban bottom trawling – a destructive form of fishing – in its national marine parks by 2026 and in all of its marine protected areas by 2030, making it “the first country to pledge to this”, Euractiv reported. Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis also announced two new marine national parks, increasing the country’s protected waters by 80%. Mitsotakis said: “The ocean has paid a heavy price for its service to humankind. It has been a vital source of life and livelihood. We have not been kind to it in return.” The announcement was made at the “Our Ocean” world conference in Athens.

RATIFICATION RACE: The Our Ocean conference also saw “more than 400 new commitments” of finance for ocean protection, totalling $10bn, according to Reuters. This included 40 commitments from the EU for many activities, “rang[ing] from fighting marine pollution to supporting sustainable fisheries and investments in the so-called blue economy”, the newswire added. At the conference, the EU and 13 other countries’ governments “urged nations…to prioritise the ratification” of the High Seas Treaty, Reuters said. According to the ratification tracker maintained by the High Seas Alliance, the total number of ratifications increased in April to four, with Belize and Seychelles joining early-adopters Palau and Chile. Sixty countries must ratify the agreement before it can take effect.

Latin America and the Caribbean have a new action plan for protecting environmental defenders 

In this spotlight, Carbon Brief reports on the main outcomes of the ongoing Conference of the Parties to the Escazú Agreement, established by Latin America and the Caribbean to protect environmental defenders. 

The third Conference of the Parties (COP3) to the Escazú Agreement is taking place in Santiago, Chile, from 22 to 24 April. 

The Escazú Agreement is a legally binding regional treaty established by Latin American and Caribbean countries in order to protect environmental defenders and promote public participation and access to information on environmental issues. It has the support of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and came into force on 22 April 2021.

Since then, 15 countries have ratified the agreement, including Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico and Ecuador, as well as several Caribbean countries, such as Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and Saint Kitts and Nevis. 

Latin America and the Caribbean accounted for 88% of the world’s environmental and land defenders killings over the previous decade, according to a 2023 report from campaign group Global Witness. The region saw 1,910 killings of defenders between 2012 and 2022, the report noted.

On Tuesday, COP3 saw the approval of the regional action plan on human rights defenders in environmental matters. The document sets out priority areas and strategies to enact article 9 of the Escazú Agreement, which establishes that each party should take action to recognise and protect the rights of environmental defenders and prevent and punish attacks against them.

Graciela Martínez, regional campaigner for the Americas at Amnesty International, told Carbon Brief that the action plan “may be an important step towards the implementation of the Escazú Agreement”. She added that the plan “provides more specific routes for the parties to meet” the agreement – for example, establishing cooperation between parties and recognition of defenders. 

Teresita Antazú López, an Indigenous environmental defender of the Yanesha people of the central Peruvian rainforest, told Carbon Brief that Indigenous peoples have a number of demands at this COP. According to López, who was attending the COP as a member of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle, the highest priority is to ensure their effective participation within the negotiations going forward. This includes having an Indigenous caucus to represent them and an Indigenous peoples rapporteur to report on violations in their territories.

As well as public participation and the protection of environmental and land defenders, COP3 has also addressed transparency and access to environmental information. 

During a side event hosted by Article 19 Mexico and Central America – an organisation that promotes freedom of expression and access to information – Lourdes Medina, a lawyer specialising in environmental and Indigenous rights, said that if the right to access environmental information is not protected and guaranteed, then other rights are at risk. Medina said:

“The participation of citizens in resistance cannot be guaranteed. There is no adequate mechanism for access to justice and this produces danger and different forms of violence against defenders of human rights in environmental matters.”

FEELING THE HEAT: Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill preventing local governments in the state from requiring heat-exposure protections for outdoor workers, the Tampa Bay Times reported. The bill was introduced in response to a proposal in Miami-Dade county that would have required employers to provide water and shade breaks to agricultural and construction workers when the heat index is above 95F (35C). More than 90 organisations signed an open letter to the governor saying that removing “local governments’ ability to protect workers from climate-caused extreme heat is inhumane”, according to the newspaper. USA Today wrote that the new law has “frustrated and angered some experts and advocates for construction workers and farmworkers”. It added that “extreme heat kills more people in the US each year than all forms of extreme weather combined”.

ATTRIBUTION IN AFRICA: BBC News covered two new rapid attribution studies from the World Weather Attribution group that focused on Africa. The first found that the ongoing drought in southern Africa that has resulted in crop failures, disease outbreaks and emergency declarations in several countries was influenced by El Niño and not climate change. The second study found that last month’s “deadly heatwave” in west Africa and the Sahel region would have been “impossible” in the absence of human-driven climate change. Meanwhile, “erratic” rain and rising temperatures are putting winegrowers in South Africa’s Western Cape province at risk, according to Agence-France Presse. One winemaker told the website: “If people don’t believe in global warming, they should come to South Africa.”

FOOD CONTROVERSY: Academics from Leiden University and New York University sent a letter to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) “urgently requesting a retraction” of its report on pathways towards lower emissions from livestock, which cites their work. They said the report “seriously distorts” their findings regarding the greenhouse gas mitigation potential of dietary changes and pointed out errors in framing, methodology and data. According to the Guardian, although FAO reports are consulted by international bodies, the organisation “is also mandated to increase livestock productivity so as to bolster nutrition and food security”. A FAO spokesperson told the outlet the institution “will look into the issues raised by the academics and undertake a technical exchange of views with them”. 

RE-PEAT: A bill introduced in the UK’s House of Commons last week was the government’s “last chance” to fulfil its promise to ban the sale of peat for gardening uses by the end of the current Parliament, according to the Wildlife Trusts. The legislation was introduced by former environment secretary Theresa Villiers, who noted that “peatlands are the UK’s largest carbon store”, according to the ENDS Report. One conservative politician “asked that it be put on the record that the bill ‘will not go unopposed’”, the outlet added. In the Yorkshire Post, Villiers noted that 95% of respondents to the government’s consultation in 2021 supported such a ban. The bill will be presented in the House of Commons again on Friday, 26 April. 

‘SOUND’ EVIDENCE: Energy Monitor covered a recent Nature study revealing that forest-based solutions, including forest carbon credits, are supported by more “sound” scientific evidence than other types of nature-based solutions. The outlet noted that forest carbon credits have come under scrutiny for their accounting methods and their impacts on forest communities. The study examined the mitigation potential of 43 nature-based solutions and found that four of them – all related to the conservation and restoration of tropical and temperate forests – “offer the greatest certainty in carbon mitigation potential”.

‘BETTER’ MEAT: The World Resources Institute thinktank published a new report aimed at helping food companies achieve climate, sustainability and ethical goals by sourcing “better” meat – where “better” refers to “environmental, social, ethical and/or economic attributes”. The report recommended six steps companies can take, including calculating the emissions baselines of their food purchases, assessing the potential environmental impacts of their new strategies and engaging with suppliers. The report noted that “better” meat is often associated with higher environmental impacts alongside possible improvements in animal welfare. It also laid out strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from meat production. 

WILDLIFE CROSSINGS: A feature in CBS news explored how wildlife crossings throughout the US are reducing roadkill and helping preserve the genetic diversity of species.

GULLIES EXPANSION: BBC News explained how soil degradation has swallowed entire neighbourhoods in Latin America and Africa.

PROTECTING THE AMAZON: A documentary by Al Jazeera showed how the Indigenous Yanomami tribe fight to protect Brazil’s Amazon rainforest from illegal gold mining.

HIMALAYAN DISPUTE:  A CNN World multimedia article addressed how herders in a northern Indian community are losing their lands to climate change and border tensions with China.

Frugivores enhance potential carbon recovery in fragmented landscapes
Nature Climate Change

New research found that fruit-eating animals – “frugivores” – play an important role in dispersing the seeds of carbon-dense trees, but this is being put at risk by forest fragmentation. Using ground-based data gathered in the Atlantic forest of Brazil, scientists showed that large fruit-eating birds are responsible for dispersing the seeds of trees with the highest carbon-storing potential, but that the animals are restricted from doing this when tree cover falls below 40%. The restricted movement of large fruit-eating birds has the potential to reduce forest “biomass” – the total weight of plants in a given area – by up to 38%, the researchers estimated. They concluded: “Active restoration (for example, planting trees) is required in more fragmented landscapes to achieve carbon and biodiversity targets.”

Impacts of fire and prospects for recovery in a tropical peat forest ecosystem
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Fires in tropical peatland forests lead to the proliferation of non-forest vegetation and the erosion of biodiversity – although some affected forests may show “some signs of recovery” after a 12-year period, according to a new study. The researchers tracked ecosystem properties and biodiversity variables in a tropical peatland in Indonesia over 16 years. The analysis showed that most ecosystems and biodiversity are “sensitive to recurrent high-intensity fire”. The paper concluded: “If left uncontrolled, fire may be a pervasive threat to the ecological functioning of tropical forests, underscoring the importance of fire prevention and long-term restoration efforts.”

Emergency policies are not enough to resolve Amazonia’s fire crises
Communications Earth & Environment

Emergency “fire bans” in Brazil – such as those implemented in 2019 – have been “largely ineffective” and must be combined with longer-term strategies to reduce the risks of fire, new research said. Scientists compared the number of observed “fire counts” in the Brazilian Amazon over 2019-21 to the number of expected fires based on climatic conditions. They found that while the 2019 ban did significantly reduce the number of fires, the same intervention was “much less effective” in 2020 and 2021. The authors argued that solving the “fire crisis” will require “target[ing] the underlying causes of fire”, engaging with local communities and building long-term management strategies and education campaigns.

Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione, Aruna Chandrasekhar, Daisy Dunne, Orla Dwyer and Yanine Quiroz. Please send tips and feedback to [email protected]

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