Dangerous decline of nature and increase in species extinctions unprecedented in human history- New UN report

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” The five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts so far are, in descending order: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.

Read Policymakers Summary here (Pdf), press release here and ScienceDaily coverage here.

Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history — and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely, per a new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)… More than 1,000,000 species- or ~25% of all species- are threatened with extinction. Transformative changes are needed to restore and protect nature for our well-being.

Findings include:

  • Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.
  • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production…

….Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the Report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature. It also offers a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades.

Based on the systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources, the Report also draws (for the first time ever at this scale) on indigenous and local knowledge, particularly addressing issues relevant to Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net’. But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point…”

For ease of reference, a number of issues highlighted in the Report are summarized in the ‘Further Information’ section that follows below, specifically on:

…Societal goals – including those for food, water, energy, health and the achievement of human well-being for all, mitigating and adapting to climate change and conserving and sustainably using nature – can be achieved in sustainable pathways through the rapid and improved deployment of existing policy instruments and new initiatives that more effectively enlist individual and collective action for transformative change. Since current structures often inhibit sustainable development and actually represent the indirect drivers of biodiversity loss, such fundamental, structural change is called for. By its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good. If obstacles are overcome, commitment to mutually supportive international goals and targets, supporting actions by indigenous peoples and local communities at the local level, new frameworks for private sector investment and innovation, inclusive and adaptive governance approaches and arrangements, multi-sectoral planning and strategic policy mixes can help to transform the public and private sectors to achieve sustainability at the local, national and global levels…

For a healthier planet, eat these 50 foods; From mushrooms, beans and pulses, to nuts, tubers, seaweed, algae, cactuses, and greens, our food choices can protect our future (WWF, Knorr)

Read NPR story here; see WWF Knorr Report here (pdf)

….According to the report, 75 percent of the food we consume comes from just 12 plant sources and five animal sources. And just three crops — wheat, corn and rice — make up nearly 60 percent of the plant-based calories in most diets.

The lack of variety in agriculture is both bad for nature and a threat to food security, the report says. It argues that it’s essential we change our eating habits to protect the planet and ensure we are able to feed our growing global population….

….Maria Haga, the head of Crop Trust, an organization focused on preserving crop diversity, says the new campaign is on target. “We probably have globally like 30,000 plants that we could eat,” she says. “We eat roughly 150 of those.” And to have just a handful of crops be so dominant is “really a challenge for the whole food system.”

Haga says dependence on just a few crops is also a threat to food security…. If we’re to feed everyone with a changing climate, says Haga, we’ll need diverse crops that can adapt to extreme weather conditions. The planet has lost thousands of varieties of foods in the last hundred years, says Haga. And once they’re gone, they’re gone forever….

….people are beginning to wake up to the problem and to the wide variety of alternative foods, many of which he grew up eating. One example is the ancient grain fonio, which resembles couscous. “It’s a grain that’s great for the planet,” says Thiam. “And it’s gluten free; it’s drought resistant; it grows in two months; it scores low on the glycemic index, so it’s great for your health too.”… Besides grains like fonio, they include various mushrooms, beans and pulses, nuts, tubers, algae and cactuses…

Climate change + population growth set stage for water shortages including in CA, the Southwest; reductions in ag water use will be key to limiting future shortages

Read ScienceDaily article here

Even efforts to use water more efficiently in municipal and industrial sectors won’t be enough to stave off shortages, say the authors of the new study. The results suggest that reductions in agricultural water use will probably play the biggest role in limiting future water shortages.

The new study is part of a larger 10-year U.S. Forest Service assessment of renewable resources including timber, rangeland forage, wildlife and water. …The new study finds climate change and population growth are likely to present serious challenges in some regions of the U.S., notably the central and southern Great Plains, the Southwest and central Rocky Mountain States, and California, and also some areas in the South and the Midwest.

The heart of the new analysis is a comparison of future water supply versus estimated water demand in different water-using sectors, like industry and agriculture….

  1. Thomas C. Brown, Vinod Mahat, Jorge A. Ramirez. Adaptation to Future Water Shortages in the United States Caused by Population Growth and Climate ChangeEarth’s Future, 2019; DOI: 10.1029/2018EF001091

Healthy Soils to Cool the Planet – A Philanthropic Action Guide

See more here about Breakthrough Strategies and read their excellent new guide here (Pdf)

Background from Ellie: Conservatively, managing agricultural soils for soil organic matter can sequester 5 billion tons (Gt) of CO2e out of the atmosphere globally every year, drawing down 50% of what is needed to return to a safe climate by 2050.

The UN IPCC’s recent 1.5C report called soil carbon sequestration as among the cheapest methods with the greatest potential (http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/). Healthy soils are foundational to human well-being, climate stabilization and vibrant ecosystems. The sustainable management and restoration of soils enhance agricultural productivity, fresh water availability, biodiversity, and climate change preparedness with enormous potential to slow and reverse negative impacts such as droughts, floods and more (von Unger, M. & Emmer, I. 2018. Carbon Market Incentives to Conserve, Restore and Enhance Soil Carbon. Silvestrum & TNC).  

Almost all IPCC scenarios that keep us below 2°C of warming include CO2 removal – typically about 10 billion tons CO2 yr-1. Based on the latest estimates from the IPCC, soils management could conservatively pull 5 billion tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere annually on croplands and rangelands by 2050, offering 50% of the needed carbon removal, with zero additional land and water use (D. Bossio, TNC; and, Zomer et al. Global Sequestration Potential of Increased Organic Carbon in Cropland Soils. Scientific Reports 7.; Vermeulen et al, A Global Agenda for Action on Soil Carbon. Nature Sustainability, Jan 2019). Equally important is avoiding future emissions from soil by protecting existing soil carbon stocks in grasslands and wetlands. 

Currently, only 8 governments include soil health in their efforts to achieve the Paris Climate goals (UNFCCC 2015). Yet boosting soil health at scale should be relatively easy to achieve through low-tech sustainable agricultural practices with policy, funding and technical support. There are other natural climate solutions as well such as climate-smart habitat restoration (https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/item/59fb62cbe4b0531197b165f8 and Dybala et al. (2018) Carbon sequestration in riparian forests: a global synthesis and meta-analysisGlobal Change Biology. ) and silviculture (https://www.fs.usda.gov/ccrc/topics/silviculture-climate-change).  

World seeing ‘catastrophic collapse’ of insects- 41% in decline and 1/3 heading toward extinction threatening crop pollination and ecosystem food webs

Read Phys.Org. article here

Francisco Sánchez-Bayo et al. Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers, Biological Conservation (2019). DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2019.01.020

Nearly half of all insect species worldwide are in rapid decline and a third could disappear altogether, according to a study warning of dire consequences for crop pollination and natural food chains.

…”We estimate the current proportion of insect species in decline—41 percent—to be twice as high as that of vertebrates,” or animals with a backbone, Francisco Sanchez-Bayo of the University of Sydney and Kris Wyckhuys of the University of Queensland in Australia reported.

“At present, a third of all insect species are threatened with extinction.”….

….Experts estimate that flying insects across Europe have declined 80 percent on average, causing bird populations to drop by more than 400 million in three decades.

Only a few species of insects—mainly in the tropics—are thought to have suffered due to climate change, while some in northern climes have expanded their range as temperatures warm.

In the long run, however, scientists fear that global warming could become another major driver of insect demise….

Increased soil carbon increases crop yield — to a point

They found that the largest gains in yield occurred between concentrations of 0.1 percent and 2 percent of soil organic matter.
“…we now have numbers, not just unverified ideas, that if you build organic matter you can improve outcomes — such as less fertilizer and increased yield.”

Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Read Science Daily article here 

  • Emily E. Oldfield, Mark A. Bradford, Stephen A. Wood. Global meta-analysis of the relationship between soil organic matter and crop yieldsSOIL, 2019; 5 (1): 15 DOI: 10.5194/soil-5-15-2019

While policymakers often tout the benefits of increasing soil organic matter as a way to boost agricultural yield, there is limited evidence that this strategy actually works. A new study quantifies this relationship, finding that greater concentrations of organic matter indeed produce greater yields — but only to a certain point.

Specifically, they find that increasing soil organic carbon — a common proxy for soil organic matter — boosts yields until concentrations reach about 2 percent, at which level they tend to hit a saturation point. Thereafter, the researchers say, the increase in SOM begins to deliver diminished returns.

Even still, they find that roughly two-thirds of agricultural soils dedicated to two of the world’s most important staple crops — maize and wheat — fall below that 2-percent threshold, suggesting the vast potential for agricultural policies that promote increased soil organic matter.

…It is well understood that building and maintaining soil organic matter is key to soil health. (SOM refers to organic matter found in the soil, including plant and animal materials that are in the process of decomposition.) It strengthens the capacity of soils to retain water and nutrients, supports structure that promotes drainage and aeration, and helps minimize the loss of topsoil through erosion.

For years, policymakers have emphasized the role of soil organic matter in a series of programs, including the “4 per 1,000” initiative of the Soils for Food Security — which emerged from the COP21 negotiations — and the U.S.’s “Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science.”

And yet when it comes to its role in promoting crop production, there’s been a surprising dearth of quantitative evidence, Bradford says. For Bradford, this gap in knowledge has been a nagging concern for nearly a decade; a 2010 National Research Council report on sustainable agriculture described organic matter as the cornerstone of most sustainability and soil quality initiatives, he recalls, yet offered no information on how much was actually needed to increase crop yields and reduce fertilizer application.

Agrivoltaics: Solar Panels on Farms Could Be a Win-Win

Massachusetts is leading the charge in dual-use solar installations, making it possible to grow some crops and pasture animals while generating clean energy.

By Sarah Shemkus Read full Civil Eats article here

he solar panels in the fields at the University of Massachusetts Crop Research and Education Center don’t look like what most of us have come to expect. Instead of hunkering close to the earth, they’re mounted seven feet off the ground, with ample room for farmers or cows to wander underneath. Panels are separated by two- and three-foot gaps, instead of clustering tightly together. Light streams through these spaces and, underneath, rows of leafy kale and Brussels sprouts replace the typical bare earth or grass.

This unusual arrangement is one of the first examples of a dual-use solar installation—sometimes called agrivoltaics. It’s a photovoltaic array that’s raised far enough off the ground and spaced in such a way that some crops can still grow around and beneath the panels. The goal is to help farmers diversify their income through renewable energy generation, while keeping land in agricultural use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions….

A global agenda for collective action on soil carbon

Policymakers and investors have perceived securing soil organic carbon as too difficult, with uncertain returns. But new technical, policy and financial opportunities offer hope for rapid progress.

Sonja Vermeulen, Deborah Bossio, Johannes Lehmann, Paul Luu, Keith Paustian, Christopher Webb, Flore Augé, Imelda Bacudo, Tobias Baedeker, Tanja Havemann, Ceris Jones, Richard King, Matthew Reddy,
Ishmael Sunga, Moritz Von Unger and Matthew Warnken. Nature Sustainability | VOL 2 | JANUARY 2019 | 2–4 | www.nature.com/natsustain Read full NATURE article here and Nature4Climate article here (and below)

“It’s too hard and too uncertain,” has long been the response of policymakers and investors in response to working on ways to conserve and improve carbon in soil. But, recent new momentum summarised in a paper in Nature Sustainability and authored by actors from government, science and the private sector offers hope in the form of technical, policy and financial opportunities for rapid progress.

Building soil organic carbon helps water cycling, agricultural productivity, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation. The amount of soil carbon globally is triple that of the atmosphere, making soil a useful tool for combatting climate change. A new global analysis … shows that building soil organic carbon on all corn and wheat lands could close the yield gaps for those crops by between 1/3 and 2/3 while also minimizing dependence on synthetic fertilizers.

“Momentum for action on soil organic carbon is indeed growing in political, financial and technical circles to address multiple sustainability goals, but not nearly fast enough.” says Deborah Bossio, Lead Soil Scientist at The Nature Conservancy and co-author of the paper published in Nature Sustainability.  Authors of the paper conclude that ‘a clear focus on early wins and on continued collaboration will lay the ground for gains in soil organic carbon at scale within an urgent timeframe.’

Under the UN Climate Convention (UNFCCC) only eight countries include targets for soil organic carbon within their intended mitigation options – (Armenia, Burkina Faso, China, Japan, Malawi, Namibia, Uruguay and Zambia). That said, a few have policies that support stronger action, ranging from Canada, which recognizes the potential of soil organic carbon under conserved forests and wetlands, to Bhutan, with its sustainable soil policy.

In addition, new financing instruments are emerging to support better environmental management of soils beyond climate concerns, such as funds (for example, the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund, managed by Mirova, and Clarmondial’s Food Securities Fund) and loan programmes (for example, the Rabobank and UNEP Kickstart Food programme).

Pioneering initiatives – both regulatory and voluntary – at national and sub-national levels, also provide evidence of economic viability and rapid results at the local level. Australia and California are examples of early adopters of market-based approaches to raising soil organic carbon. Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative, a legislated voluntary offsets scheme implemented by the Emission Reduction Fund, has awarded contracts with an approximate value of A$200 million to landholders and farmers to earn carbon credits from soil organic carbon projects on degraded land, supporting a wide range of activities from rotational grazing to reduced tillage.

In the private sector, a growing number of companies are also including soil organic carbon within their set of options to build resilience and long-term profitability of agricultural value chains. Danone, Mars, Bayer, Coca Cola, Fonterra, Diageo and Olam are multinational examples.

“We need a new mindset,” said Deborah Bossio. “We need to give up on the idea that it’s all too hard. To combat climate change and to produce healthy diets, we need every tool in the toolbox. We might not think about soil all the time, but boy we notice it when it’s gone.”

Global-scale evaluation of role of soil minerals in carbon storage

University of California – Santa Barbara Read ScienceDaily article here

Marc G. Kramer, Oliver A. Chadwick. Climate-driven thresholds in reactive mineral retention of soil carbon at the global scaleNature Climate Change, 2018; 8 (12): 1104 DOI: 10.1038/s41558-018-0341-4

One answer to our greenhouse gas challenges may be right under our feet: Soil scientists have found that minerals in soil can hold on to a significant amount of carbon pulled from the atmosphere. It’s a mechanism that could potentially be exploited as the world tries to shift its carbon economy. …

… Wetter climates are more conducive to formation of minerals that are effective at storing carbon, therefore much of the Earth’s estimated 600 billion metric tons of soil-bound carbon is found in the wet forests and tropical zones. Arid places, meanwhile, tend to have a “negative water balance” and can thus store far less organic carbon. According to Chadwick, the findings suggest that even a small, strategic change in the water balance could drive greater carbon storage.

… There is still a lot to investigate and several hurdles to overcome as soil scientists everywhere consider ways to tip the balance of the Earth’s soil from carbon source to carbon sink, but according to these researchers, understanding this relatively little-known but highly significant carbon storage pathway is a start.

Does Grazing Matter for Soil Organic Carbon Sequestration in the Western North American Great Plains?

Long-term removal of grazing from semiarid grassland ecosystems in the western North American Great Plains does not enhance long-term SOC sequestration.

Justin D. Derner, David J. Augustine, Douglas A. Frank. Ecosystems (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-018-0324-3

ABSTRACT

Considerable uncertainty remains regarding grazing-induced influences on soil organic carbon (SOC) sequestration in semiarid grassland ecosystems due to three important complications associated with studying such effects: (1) Ecologically meaningful shifts in SOC pools attributable to grazing are difficult to detect relative to inherently large grassland SOC pools, (2) a lack of baseline (pre-treatment) data, and (3) frequent lack of or limited replication of long-term grazing manipulations. SOC sequestration rates were determined in 74-year-old grazing exclosures and paired moderately grazed sites, established across a soil texture gradient, in the western North American shortgrass steppe in northeastern Colorado. We sampled soils (0–20 cm) from 12 exclosures and paired grazed sites to measure SOC concentration and soil radiocarbon D14C (&); the latter allowed us to determine turnover of the SOC pool over a 7-decade period in the presence versus the absence of grazing. Removal of grazing for more than 7 decades substantially altered plant community composition but did not affect total soil C, SOC, soil D14C, SOC turnover rate, or total soil N. Grazing effect also did not interact with soil texture to influence any of those soil properties. Soil texture (silt + clay content) did influence total soil C and SOC, and total soil N, but not D14C or SOC turnover. Results provide evidence that long-term removal of grazing from semiarid grassland ecosystems in the western North American Great Plains does not enhance long-term SOC sequestration, despite changes in the relative dominance of C3 versus C4 grasses.