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Hotter, drier, poorer

In its June report to the annual G8 Summit entitled “Africa: Up in Smoke,” the Working Group on Climate Change and Development warned that global warming will increase poverty in Africa.

The report said that because Africa “lives on the front line of global warming,” poverty there cannot be solved in isolation. G8 countries’ African aid plans ignore the fact that roughly 70 percent of Africans rely on rainwater to irrigate crops for their livelihood. Global warming is having a dire effect on the continent.

The report advocates more aid to help small farmers adapt to climate change and recommends moving directly to “clean” energy sources such as wind and sun.

Financial Times, 6/20

African sunset. Photos.comPhotos.com Climate change will increase poverty in Africa.

Burn on, big lake

East Africa’s Lake Victoria might catch fire, says a Ugandan official. “Unless something is done to control the pollutants into Lake Victoria,” says National Executive Secretary for Lake Victoria Environment Management Programme, Dr. Faustino Orach-Meza, “the accumulation of pollutants in the lake will reach a stage of producing flammable gases like methane, which will cause the lake to burn.”

The lake supplies food and water for approximately 30 million people living around it – one-third of the East African population – as well as for North Africa.

The Monitor (Kampala), 8/26


Kids at the top

The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) first Children’s World Summit for the Environment brought 600 children from 65 countries to Japan in July.

“The Children’s World Summit is an important event, and it comes as a follow-up to earlier adult gatherings in Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg,” said Klaus Toepher, UNEP’s executive director.

The children, ages 10 to 14, conferred on energy, biodiversity, water, and recycling. Their message, on a giant canvas, will be presented to the World Summit in New York this September.

– UNEP, 7/25

China loves miniminivans

A $5,000 minivan has driven General Motors to the head of the Chinese automobile market, now its largest market outside the US.

Averaging 43 miles to the gallon, the vans are slower, smaller, and less comfortable than GM’s American vans, but compare well to other Chinese autos.

Chinese small-business owners buy the vans to carry supplies and transport their families. The Chinese government is reducing gasoline subsidies, so gas is expensive, but China’s car market is growing rapidly as economic growth gives new segments of the world’s most populous country their first taste of prosperity.

New York Times, 8/9

Iran’s forests – famed and forgotten

Environmentalists have impelled the reduction of annual timber harvest quotas in Iran’s forests from two million cubic meters just two years ago to one million this year. Unfortunately, the lack of responsible land-use regulations along with hastening development, eco-unfriendly tourism, and the continuing presence of poachers and illegal timber smugglers are still advancing the desertification of the Iranian plateau.

At the onset of the Islamic revolution, Northern Iran’s forests extended over 18 million hectares. Along with the loss of at least six million hectares of woodlands since then has come the eradication of more than half of the native species of wildlife, including the endangerment of the Jebeer gazelle, Asian cheetah, Persian fallow deer. Loss of land due to deforestation and over-grazing has also been cited as a significant aggravator of recent flooding events.
Underpaid wardens of the Environment Department are responsible for management of these devastated areas, ignored by central authorities and threatened by poachers. Previously, several governmental bodies worked to establish and enforce policies for conservation. Unless a systematic renewal of independent assessment, lobbying, and policy reform is enacted, Iran will go the way of neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan: from lush to barren.

Inter Press Service, 9/8

Powering Pakistan

Pakistan’s Comprehensive Energy Conservation Plan, yet to be officially announced, will employ varied and somewhat vague initiatives to meet the nation’s energy needs. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, citing Pakistan’s commitment to comply with the Montreal Protocol, insisted that efforts to meet demands for energy would emphasize reducing both fuel consumption and the emission of toxic and greenhouse gases.

While the administration’s primary focus is on nuclear power generation, the federal cabinet agreed to the gradual replacement of diesel oil with compressed natural gas in urban areas, as well as permitting the use of liquified natural gas for the transport sector. Dialogue with India continues as both nations collaborate on a potential Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.

Both nuclear power and liquefied natural gas have come under harsh criticism from environmentalists.
President Pervez Musharraf has also mandated that the country’s Alternative Energy Board recommend and implement alternate sources of energy, prioritizing wind and solar in areas not covered by the grid. Developing cleaner, more fuel efficient vehicles, and initiating a public energy conservation awareness program are recommendations set forth by Prime Minister Aziz as alternatives to the recently rejected proposal to implement two holidays a week in order to save fuel.

Pakistan Link, 9/17; Pakistan Daily Times, 9/21; International Source Providers, 9/20; Webindia123, 9/16


Leave the uranium down under

After years of widespread opposition, shifting attitudes towards nuclear power in Australia may lead to increased uranium mining and exporting.

Australia has an estimated 40 percent of the world’s uranium deposits, but low prices, government restrictions, and popular resistance have limited mining. Soaring global demand, a 200 percent international price rise in the last two years, and concerns about the environmental impacts of fossil fuel are re-igniting debates and changing minds across the continent.

Last month Australia and China began negotiating a treaty to send Australian uranium to China, which plans to double its use of nuclear-generated electricity by 2020. The treaty would ensure the uranium is used solely for peaceful purposes. Similar discussions have begun with India.

The Australian government is also considering turning to nuclear power to cut greenhouse gas emissions and generate investment and jobs.

Environmental and health groups, however, claim the real issue is commodity sales, and not worth the risk of putting uranium in the hands of nuclear-weapons states.

Sydney Morning Herald, 9/8

From sewer to socket

An Australian inventor claims he can turn human waste into a viable energy source.

To address concerns about increasing greenhouse gases and climate change, Cy d’Oliveira’s creation, the d’Oliveira Natural Gas Refinery, converts sewage into methane, potable water, and other useful byproducts without using any fossil fuels. D’Oliveira says the Refinery cuts greenhouse gases by 80 percent.

The inventor says sewage sludge contains several hundred times more energy per kilogram than conventional energy sources such as woodchips, gasoline, or coal. Furthermore, the process cuts down on the amount of sewage that would otherwise pollute rivers and lakes.

Mongabay.com, 8/23


Hot British birds

Climate change is altering the bird population in the United Kingdom. Mild winters have pushed British bird populations eastward. Birds nest earlier and migrating birds arrive earlier than in the past.

Researchers for “The State of the UK Birds 2004” found that wading birds normally found on the warmer west coast had moved to the usually colder east coast, but fewer overwintered than a decade ago.

The researchers also found more than a quarter of the rural bird population had disappeared since 1970.

Birds that have not been seen in Britain could migrate there if summers get warmer. Researchers expect more changes to come.

Associated Press, 8/19

It’s a burr, it’s a plantain, it’s Superweed!

British scientists have found a new pesticide-resistant weed in a field previously used to grow genetically modified crops. The superweed appears to be a hybrid of a wild local plant, charlock (Sinapsis arvensis) with GM oilseed rape. Crossing these two distantly related plants was thought impossible.

The new charlock was found in a field that had been used for a three-year trial of GM crops. Scientists found two more herbicide-resistant plants, both wild turnips, in the same field.

It is not clear if the new charlock is fertile. Of eight seeds from the plant, none germinated. However, the plant was large with many flowers, and could have spread the GM genes to neighboring plants via pollen – which is probably how the new hybrid emerged.

Charlock seeds can remain dormant for up to 30 years before germinating.

Brian Johnson of the government scientific group that assessed the farm trial noted, “You only need one event in several million. As soon as it has taken place the new plant has a huge selective advantage. That plant will multiply rapidly.”

These findings mirror Canada’s experience with GM crops.

Guardian, 7/25

North America

Toxic Pentagon

The General Accounting Office (GAO) reports (.pdf ~2.2 MB) that the Pentagon has refused some state and federal requests to test sites for toxic perchlorate contamination. The Pentagon called the report “factually incorrect and fundamentally flawed.”

The GAO study called the contamination a result of Department of Defense activites. Perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel and other military products, has been found to interfere with thyroid function and is especially dangerous to infants. It is found in drinking water in many states.

GAO investigators detected perchlorate in 35 states at 395 sites, over half of them in California and Texas. Pentagon policy requires testing only when the Pentagon itself finds a reasonable likelihood of human exposure.

The GAO said a standardized reporting system is needed to monitor perchlorate detections and cleanup. The Pentagon and the EPA have called a formal reporting system unnecessary.

The Pentagon is being sued nationwide by communities fighting to rid their water of perchlorate, though there is no agreement as to safe levels of the chemical.

“As the nation’s biggest polluter, the Defense Department shouldn’t get off the hook when it comes to cleaning up its toxic mess,” says Erik Olson, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Cleanup is planned or under way, the GAO reports, at only 51 sites; there are no federal regulations to limit perchlorate in water supplies. The EPA is considering whether to issue such a regulation.

AP, 6/21; NRDC press release, 6/21

Fluoride, bones, & boys

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit research organization, petitioned the National Institutes of Health to include fluoride in tap water in “The Report on Carcinogens,” which lists substances known or reasonably suspected to cause cancer in humans.

The EWG acknowledges that fluoride helps prevent cavities, but cites a strong body of peer-reviewed epidemiologic research strongly suggesting that exposure to fluoride in boys between six and ten years old can lead to bone cancer in adolescence.

170 million people are exposed to fluoridated water nationwide. In 2002, the EPA commissioned the National Research Council to conduct a study on the safety of fluoridated drinking water. That report is due in February 2006.

– EWG press release, 6/6

Gap-toothed grin. Photos.comPhotos.com Fluoride might help his smile now,
but could prove deadly later.

Biofuels: too little for too much

Fuel from farm crops takes more energy to produce than it generates, says a new study from Cornell University and the University of California, Berkeley. “The US desperately needs a liquid fuel replacement for oil in the near future, but producing ethanol or biodiesel from plant biomass is going down the wrong road, because you use more energy to produce these fuels than you get out from the combustion of these products,” said David Pimentel, Cornell professor of ecology and agriculture.

The study showed that each biofuel source required more fossil fuel energy to produce than the resulting ethanol supplied: corn by 29 percent, switchgrass by 45 percent, and wood biomass by 57 percent. Similar results were obtained for biodiesel production: Energy input exceeded energy output by 27 percent using soybeans and 118 percent using sunflowers. (Biodiesel made from waste oil obviously fares better in energy return for energy input.)

“The government spends more than $3 billion a year to subsidize ethanol production when it does not provide a net energy balance or gain, is not a renewable energy source or an economical fuel,” Pimentel said. “Further, its production and use contribute to air, water, and soil pollution, and global warming.”

Pimentel does support using biomass to produce thermal energy for heating homes.

Science Daily, 7/6

Organic: the same for less

Organic corn and soybean yields equal conventionally grown yields, but use less energy, less water, and no pesticides, concludes a study of a 22-year farming trial.

“Organic farming approaches for these crops not only use an average of 30 percent less fossil energy but also conserve more water in the soil, induce less erosion, maintain soil quality, and conserve more biological resources than conventional farming does,” said the study’s lead author, David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University.

A conventional farm was compared with an organic animal-based farm and an organic legume-based farm at the Rodale Institute Farming Systems in Pennsylvania. This is the longest-running comparison of conventional and organic growing regimens in the US. Fertilizer and pesticides were applied at rates recommended by the manufacturers at the conventional farm. No chemical fertilizers or pesticides were used on the organic farms.
The researchers concluded that all three systems yielded the same output of corn and soy. Soil was lost to erosion on the conventional farm, while the soil continued to improve on both organic farms, becoming richer in organic matter, moisture retention, and microbial activity.

Although labor costs were roughly 15 percent higher on the organic farms, and cash crops could not be grown as frequently due to crop rotation and slower nutrient buildup, the higher prices paid for organic produce still generated a net return per acre equal to or higher than the conventionally grown crops, noted Pimentel.

He added that organic farming offers favorable returns when growing corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, and other grains. However, for crops with more pest problems – such as grapes, apples, cherries, and potatoes – it might not.

Science Daily, 7/14

Right whales wronged

The North American right whale is in trouble and could face extinction in the next century if current mortality rates continue. Eight have been killed over the past 16 months, including three pregnant females.

Scientists studying the whales in the Bay of Fundy between New Brunswick and Maine found that while more calves were born this summer than usual, too many of the slow-moving whales were killed in collisions with ships.

The researchers recommended reducing speed limits and changing shipping lanes to help the endangered population. The Canadian government responded by altering shipping lanes in the bay, but the American government has not acted. The whales migrate along the Atlantic coast between the Bay of Fundy and Florida.

There are only 325 to 350 North American right whales left.

Associated Press, 8/22


Big concerns for a tiny country

Enile Sopoaga, Tuvalu’s Ambassador to the UN, asserted at a Middlebury College conference that while global warming and rising sea levels are slowly destroying his country, a typhoon the size of Hurricane Katrina would wipe it out in a matter of hours.

Melting Arctic ice could elevate sea levels above the highest points on the island state within the next 50 years. Tuvalu asked Australia and New Zealand to admit its people as refugees when such an event occurs. Australia refused the request.

In 2002, Tuvalu announced its intention to sue the US for consciously endangering the citizens of Small Island Developing States (a coalition of low-lying coastal countries sharing similar sustainable development challenges) by withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocols, disregarding the call to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Rutland Herald, 9/25; UK Independent, 9/19

South America

Learning from burning

The Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts will conduct a controlled burn of two and a half square kilometers of transition forest between the Amazon and the “Cerrado” savannas of central Brazil, as part of a study assessing the impact of agricultural burns.

This is the second phase of a process of burning and re-burning designed to simulate the long-term effects of the popular burn methods employed by the cattle ranchers and soy farmers in the region. Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon was at its second-highest point on record in 2004.

In mid-August and September, the researchers and their Brazilian partners from the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia (IPAM) set fire to half a square kilometer burned last year and two additional square kilometers, all of which were already slated for destruction for the future production of soybeans.

Before the burn, the scientists inventoried plant and animal life in the forest. They measured the forest canopy and amount of fuel on the forest floor. They will monitor changes in temperature and humidity in the forest’s microclimate. They hope the study will provide insight into the role that fires play in the “savannization” of the area’s transition forest.

The test area is in the northern state of Mato Grosso, Brazil’s number-one soy producer, where fires set for agricultural purposes frequently get out of control and burn virgin forest.

– Woods Hole Research Center, 7/19

Turtles run from “The Gauntlet”

On the Caribbean island of Tobago, nesting grounds for the critically endangered leatherback turtle were compromised to accommodate the set of MTV’s new reality series, “The Gauntlet.” Elements of the set’s construction and the disturbances caused by a film crew of about 90 destroyed about eight nests and inhibited the establishment of countless others, as the filming took place during peak nesting season.

The site – aptly named Turtle Beach – regularly boasts the highest density of leatherback, hawksbill, and green turtle nests on the island. So far this year, Save Our Sea Turtles (SOS) Tobago, a non-governmental organization that monitors nesting habits, has documented 275 nests.

On June 4, a government backhoe was used to open a congested nearby river that flooded a portion of the MTV set, burying six adjacent nests and deterring any further nesting in the area.

The leatherback turtle has suffered the greatest population decline of any large vertebrate species in modern history, from 115,000 to about 25,000 between 1980 and 1990.

When urged to relocate the set of “The Gauntlet” to a less crucial site, MTV offered to outfit the film crew in Save Our Sea Turtles T-shirts, but didn’t move the set.

– SOS Tobago, 7/10

Frogs croak

Frogs once again herald the coming of habitat destruction, disease, pollution, and climate change. This time the news is from Ecuador, home to 417 species of frogs and toads, of which at least one third are classified as vulnerable or in critical danger of extinction.

Scientists believe amphibians are indicators of early signs of ecosystem distress. Of 3,046 species of amphibians in the Americas, two out of five face extinction. Eight frogs and one salamander have become extinct over the last 100 years, five since 1980, according to the report, and another 117 species have not been seen for some time.

The Catholic University in Ecuador recently staged an exhibition in Quito to boost public awareness of the frogs. Ecuador hosts the third most diverse set of endangered amphibians in the Americas, after Colombia and Mexico, according to NatureServe.

Reuters, 6/23

Compiled by Carrie Black, Hunter Jackson, and Aadika Singh

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