Best of our wild blogs: 7 Jun 12

Beting Bronok on Venus Transit Day
from Peiyan.Photography

Fishy fishy!
from Psychedelic Nature

Mostly flat fishes
from The annotated budak

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Shark's fin delight: The end doesn't justify the means

Straits Times Forum 7 Jun 12;

I CAN empathise with Mr Paul Chan's predilection for shark's fin, being a one-time connoisseur of the delicacy and having been conditioned for half a century to expect the delectable delight during any feast of great consequence ('The great taste of shark's fin soup', Monday).

It used to be considered insulting to guests not to have shark's fin on the menu, for that meant the company was unworthy of the pricey treat. It also reflected badly on the hosts for not putting on the most impressive show of hospitality.

I gave up the habit of ordering shark's fin because I just could not justify the sacrifice of shark life for the small proportion of cartilage it offered to satisfy my gourmandise.

Tiger's teeth, rhino horns, bear claws or gall bladders and shark's fin are delicacies which provide little nourishment and really little scientifically proven salutary effect but for the psychological.

Shark's fin is totally devoid of taste, almost entirely indigestible and worse still, impregnated with mercury, a neurotoxin, which is deleterious to health.

The pristine-looking shark's fin we see on the shelves is the result of carcinogenic chemicals used to leach out the unsightly skin and other discolourations from raw fin.

Dr Yik Keng Yeong

..She will settle for the alternative
Straits Times Forum 7 Jun 12;

MR PAUL Chan described the taste of shark's fin soup as heavenly ('The great taste of shark's fin soup'; Monday). I stopped consuming the soup soon after I learnt about the cruelty and the consequences of the unsustainable demand for shark's fin soup.

The soup was tasty because of all other ingredients. The fins, by themselves, are absolutely tasteless as they merely add texture to the soup. The same soup can be made without the real fins.

Mr Chan is right that many sharks are caught as 'by-catches' by tuna fisheries. There are various options that tuna fishers can undertake to greatly reduce shark by-catches, such as to use 'weak' or 'smart' hooks when fishing for tuna, or to use nylon instead of steel leaders.

The decision for tuna fishers to make the switch ultimately lies in whether shark by-catches are a nuisance that result in capital losses or if these by-catches are actually welcomed.

When sharks are caught on tuna longlines, their fins are often retained, while their lower-value carcasses are discarded to make space for more expensive tuna on board.

Not all shark's fin comes from tuna fisheries. There are also many that target sharks for their fins.

Unlike most other fishes, sharks mature late, have long gestation periods and they reproduce very slowly. They cannot keep up with the rate we are consuming them. Shark's fin soup is not a staple in our diet and any reputable Chinese chef or restaurant today can whip up equally expensive alternatives to shark's fin soup.

Jennifer Lee (Ms)
Founder, Project: Fin

Keep shark's fin off the menu
Straits Times Forum 7 Jun 12;

MR PAUL Chan ('The great taste of shark's fin soup'; Monday) feels aggrieved that shark's fin lovers like himself are blamed for the sharp drop in the shark population. However, the shark's fin industry thrives precisely because of lucrative demand from diners like him.

The harvesting of fins from sharks that are thrown back into the oceans is in itself a cruel act. Until a solution is found to increase the dwindling shark population and for a more acceptable way of harvesting the fins, consumers should send a strong message to the suppliers who exploit nature's riches in the oceans, by not having the dish on the dining table.

Charles Tan

It's plainly cruel...
Straits Times Forum 7 Jun 12;

I HAVE always found it barbaric and cold-blooded to trap a shark for its fins and throw the rest of its body back into the ocean, where it clearly cannot survive.

I, too, agree that the taste of shark's fin soup is 'heavenly' ('The great taste of shark's fin soup' by Mr Paul Chan; Monday). I loved having that delicacy when I was a child, until I learnt of the shark-finning trade and swore off that dish.

That distinct flavour we all loved did not come from the fin itself but the ingredients that were used in the dish. Shark's fin is virtually tasteless in itself.

While shark's fin soup made from mock fins does not taste like the real deal, how is it that we can accept artificially flavoured drinks and candy and yet can't overlook that slight difference in the taste, even though using the real thing harms the marine eco-balance?

In our current society, many of our traditions have been modified. While still keeping to our cultural roots, I am sure most of us do not strictly follow many traditions.

We have evolved with the times, and so has Mother Nature. Her health has clearly deteriorated with our arrogant exploitation in the name of cultural practices.

I do agree that the decline in the shark population has to do with large-scale fisheries, but saying no to shark's fin soup can be our first tiny step.

In the end, shark's fin soup lovers are still part of the reason for the decline.

Charmaine Choo Manning (Ms)

The great taste of shark's fin soup
Straits Times Forum 4 Jun 12;

WHILE I appreciate Associate Professor Thomas Menkhoff's concern for shark's fin traders ('The cluster effect and shark's fin trade'; last Wednesday),

I disagree that artificial shark's fin can ever replace the real stuff.

Honestly, and in fairness to shark's fin soup lovers, environmentalists should take the trouble to understand why diners are drawn to the dish.

I love it because the taste can be described only as heavenly - a gift from the gods.

Artificial shark's fin made out of gelatin has not been able to replace the genuine stuff despite years of efforts.

Added to that is the cultural link: Shark's fin has been on the Chinese menu since the Ming Dynasty more than half a millennium ago.

The exponential surge of the world's population has put a strain on ocean resources. It is natural that shark populations have shrunk due to loss of their feeding habitats.

Large-scale fisheries have also depleted global fish stocks, and made sharks an unfortunate by-product of its exploitation, by killing them in the search for other fish like the blue-fin tuna.

So let us be clear about who is to blame for the significant depletion of the world's shark populations. It certainly isn't shark's fin soup lovers like me.

Paul Chan

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5 youths head to Borneo's jungle to study rainforest conservation

Hanna Begam Channel NewsAsia 7 Jun 12;

SINGAPORE: Five youths aged 17 to 20 will head to Borneo's jungle from 8 to 17 July to study rainforest conservation.

The young environmentalists, winners of this year's Youth Environmental Awards, will work with scientists to assess the rainforest's biodiversity and evaluate the effects of soil erosion.

Nineteen-year-old Low Zhan Hong said he is looking forward to learn about Malaysia's environmental protection measures.

"What I hope to learn is to push myself out of my comfort zone, so as to gain different perspective or angles, such that when I come back to Singapore, I'll be able to apply what I've learned.

"I aim to work with government agencies such as the National Parks Board, the Public Utilities Board or even the National Environment Agency, to coordinate new projects or initiatives."

Apart from the 10-day research expedition to Borneo, the winners also received a S$500 book voucher and plaque each.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Dr Vivian Balakrishnan gave out the awards on Thursday to Elaine Sam Hui Xian, 20, Jarel Tang Jun Ren, 17, Low Zhan Hong, 19, Sarthak Agrawal, 20 and Eddie Leow Yuan Kang, 18.

The Youth Environmental Awards, which is into its 14th year, are given to youths who have distinguished themselves through leadership and commitment to the environmental cause.

It is a collaboration between HSBC Bank and the National Youth Achievement Award Council.

- CNA/ck

Students rewarded for green efforts
Five will head to Borneo to aid in rainforest research
Sarah Giam Straits Times 8 Jun 12;

FIVE winners of a youth environmental award will be heading into Borneo's rainforests next month for a 10-day field trip.

Together with scientists from the Earthwatch Institute, the five will be measuring soil moisture levels, analysing slope angles and studying vegetation densities, among other types of fieldwork.

The data-gathering trip, which begins on July 8, is to help the scientists understand how logging and plantation agriculture have depleted the rainforests' biodiversity.

Earthwatch Institute is an international non-profit organisation that promotes sustainable environments through field research and education. The students' trip, which costs about $40,000, is sponsored by HSBC Bank.

The young people, aged 17 to 20, are winners of the Youth Environmental Award this year.

They were chosen out of more than 120 entries to the National Youth Achievement Award (NYAA) Councilfor their work in environment-related projects.

The awards are given by HSBC and the NYAA Council.

One of the winners, Hwa Chong Institution (High School) student Jarel Tang, 17, led a team of schoolmates who trained more than 200 student guides for the MacRitchie Reservoir.

At the award ceremony held yesterday at the Environment Building in Scotts Road, HSBC Singapore's group general manager and chief executive Alex Hungate said: 'This is a great opportunity for young people to come closer to their natural environment, and hopefully become more passionate about protecting it.'

Another winner, Singapore Polytechnic student Elaine Sam, 20, said she was looking forward to the trip next month.

'I'm excited to witness what scientists do in the forest, how they use findings as evidence of climate change,' said the environmental management and water technology student.

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Pre-schoolers to learn about saving environment

Wayne Chan Channel NewsAsia 6 Jun 12;

SINGAPORE: The Singapore Environment Council (SEC) plans to get children to start young on saving the environment.

It plans to take this message to the pre-schools, through a national environmental education programme next year.

In an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia, the SEC's executive director, Mr Jose Raymond, said the programme aims to teach young children to recycle, as well as save water and energy.

To do this, the SEC will have to train teachers and produce textbooks for pre-schoolers.

"We will reach out to Singaporean pre-schoolers through an approach that is engaging, yet easy-to-grasp. By cultivating eco-friendly habits from a young age, we hope that these habits will become ingrained in our pre-schoolers and see them through to adulthood. Ultimately, our aim is to provide a sustainable method of raising Singapore's level of eco-consciousness as a whole," said Mr Raymond.

Mr Raymond highlighted this strategy, as part of efforts to get more aggressive in environmental outreach programmes.

Another strategy is to be more targeted adults through its eco-office programme.

Earlier this year, the SEC announced that it wanted to get another 100 offices certified as "eco-office" this year.

Before SEC announced this new target, it had only managed to get 107 offices certified green since 2003.

Currently, it's almost halfway towards achieving its latest goal, with 41 offices already eco-certified this year.

Singapore's 15 town councils - which employ over 1,000 staff - are also on board.

They've pledged to earn the "eco-office" label by August this year.

Albert Teng, general manager of Holland-Bukit Panjang Town Council, said: "This is a way for us to tell the staff to be personally involved. And perhaps when they carry along these habits back home, they find that they actually realise something tangible such as saving electricity bills and water bills."

The SEC also plans to reach out to specific sectors, starting with banks, architectural firms and legal offices.

Mr Raymond said for such companies - which are paper intensive – saving the environment also means saving money.

"There are cost savings for every company and sometimes they can run into the thousands if they actually are able to cut back on usage of paper, water, electricity and just change the way they function inside the office. This is what I am going to be reaching out and try to get the point across a bit more aggressively - that there is cost savings," said Mr Raymond.

Since joining the SEC as executive director last September, Mr Raymond said he doubled his staff from about 11 to 25 to help with the more aggressive approach he is taking.

"What I've also done is to open up the areas where we can actually source for revenue. We must always function on a model where we rely as little as possible on government funds. We must always have a self-sustaining model. I'll continue to look for new avenues to bring revenue into the SEC so that savings can be ploughed back into better environmental programmes for the public."

One of these is a project worth S$640,000 that PUB awarded to the SEC in April to develop two new trails as part of the national water agency's ABC Waters Learning Trails programme, which aims to revamp the 100 waterways islandwide by 2030.

There are currently 20 revamped waterways.

Mr Raymond said that most of the tender amount will go to paying for the coordinators, web design, promotional materials, advertisements and research analysis.

Under the tender, SEC will have to reach out to 25,000 lower secondary school students in 12 months and conduct 20 training workshops for teachers and student leaders

It will also have to increase school presence at the upcoming Singapore International Week and at World Water day 2013.

SEC will also make use of the existing volunteer network to find 30 active coordinators, as well as to provide additional training to educate them about the different ABC waterway characteristics and history.

Since the educational tours started in March 2011, more than 9000 students have participated in the tour of the seven ABC waterways.

More than 100 schools have also adopted the waterways to clean the waters and conduct learning trails.

SEC will have to get another 80 secondary schools to become waterway adopters by next April.

- CNA/fa

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Malaysia: Sacrificing Penang's hills for progress

Baradan Kuppusamy The Star 7 Jun 12;

Environmentalists are concerned that the many hillslope development projects, if not properly managed, would destroy the unique charm of Penang.

FOR an 85-year-old lifelong consumerist to go out in the heat of the day, demonstrate and carry a placard to decry the “mindless development” in Penang on World Environment Day on June 5, he must surely love the hills of Penang.

At an age when he should be doting on his grandchildren under the shade, S.M. Mohamed Idris, the president of both the Consumers Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia, was demonstrating to save what is left of his beloved hills.

Both the previous Barisan Nasional governments and the present Pakatan Rakyat government led by Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng have been blamed for the loss of the hills.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that the rate of destruction of the hills, loved by locals and tourists alike, has been accelerating since 2008.

Further, the expensive condos that are being built are priced out of the pockets of most locals.

If that is the case, who then are buying the condos? Mostly foreigners, say locals.

Similar anecdotal evidence also suggested last month that some 40,000 people, mostly Malays, have migrated out of the state due to the high cost of living. Lim has, however, refuted this with some evidence of his own.

Suffice to say, the rapid rate of destruction of the hills is real and beginning to worry many people, prompting Idris and others into protesting to save what is left of the famous hills of Penang.

On June 2, Anil Netto, the doyen of environmental journalism on the island, posted a message with three photos on his website,, under the heading Eulogy to another hill stripped bare.

The photographs showed dramatic scenes of hillslope development.

A single paragraph states, “Now who approved this project in Paya Terubong and on what basis? The gradient of the slope looks steep.”

Idris says “Penang's beautiful natural environment and its hills are slowly losing their shine and this is due to the rampant development”.

“Our hills are stripped bare and our rivers and seas polluted. Reclamation and aquaculture activities have caused the destruction of the natural coastal ecosystem.”

“Approximately 70% of mangrove forests have been destroyed by development projects. Some beaches are nothing but mudflats,” he said..

An investigation by The Star on Monday also showed soil erosion and sedimentation from development activities.

At least nine projects are in the pipeline in Tanjung Bungah, Batu Feringghi, Bukit Gambier and Sungai Ara.

Balik Pulau and Bayan Lepas residents near such hills have appealed to the authorities to cancel the projects, especially those on hill slopes.

For Penang to be saved, the state has to undertake a holistic and sustainable development that is in harmony with nature.

Undoubtedly Lim wants Penang to be a highly-developed city state with modern skyscrapers.

He is in a hurry. He wants to be the architect of a Penang that is a thriving, giant metropolis. In the short time that he has, he wants to leave his mark on the city state.

His vision for Penang is that of an international and liveable city, a green city that is a magnet for global talents.

But in the rush to achieve his goals, he has opened the floodgates to developers to build houses, high-rise apartments, condominiums, shopping malls and commercial offices at the expense of the state's natural greenery.

People like Idris and Anil fear that if such development is not properly balanced, planned and controlled, it would destroy the unique charm that is Penang island.

With George Town awarded World Heritage Status, international tourists are beginning to pour into the state to see the pre-war buildings, enjoy the ambience of a past era and relive how a different generation probably a wiser one had lived.

They don't come to see our high-rise buildings or skyscrapers because they have plenty of those in their own country.

The huge housing and condominium bubble in Penang is fuelled by international speculators and the elite group of local super rich who are pushing property prices beyond the reach of the hard working locals.

It is the job of politicians NOT to submit to the avarice of the few in the belief that this is the very development that the state needs.

They should act as a check and balance, protect the public good and strive for a sustainable development that balances the natural greenery and heritage with the modest needs of the people.

Penang CM defends hill projects
Christina Chin and Winnie Yeoh The Star 8 Jun 12;

GEORGE TOWN: Lim Guan Eng has defended the Penang Government's stand in treating hillslope development, saying that it has the “most stringent” guidelines for it.

The Penang Chief Minister said the present state government had not approved a single project above 250 feet (76m) high, adding that it was the only state in Malaysia which had set such a bar.

“Penang has the most stringent guidelines for hillslope safety development in the country, crafted by Oxford-trained geotechnical engineer Prof Dr Gue See Sew, a former international chairman of the coordinating committee of Apec Engineers and president of the Institute of Engineers Malaysia,” he said in a statement yesterday.

He said that half of the 38 hillslope projects approved the last two years for heights below 76m were for open space and green areas without any building structures.

Lim took a swipe at some other states, which he said allowed development on hills above the height of 76m.

“Thirty-one development projects were approved by the previous Barisan Nasional state government on hill land above 250 feet (76m) compared to none by the present Pakatan Rakyat state government,” he added.

He said according to the Penang Municipal Council, eight projects on hills above 76m were approved from 1985 to 2004, three in 2005, 10 in 2006, eight in 2007 and two between January and March 2008.

The chief minister also addressed the issue of the rise in property prices, saying that there was also a similar rise in Johor and Kuala Lumpur.

The Star had reported on Penang's various hillslope projects and the rise in property prices in the state.

A non-governmental organisation (NGO) here has called on the state government to practise sustainable development.

Citizens Awareness Chant group adviser Yan Lee said hillslope developments would effect environmentally sensitive water catchment areas like Sungai Ara.

“Such developments require proper studies and environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports. Some projects do not require an EIA because of the development size but nonetheless, one should be done if the projects threaten the environment,” he said.

Lee said the Federal Government, through the relevant ministry, had the discretion to request an EIA in such a situation, expressing hope that such discretion would be exercised in hillslope developments here.

“A crematorium project about 1km away from the Ayer Itam Dam recently received planning permission from the Penang Municipal Council. This is an example of where the EIA report is needed, though not required.”

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Nearly 100 bird species face increased risk of extinction in the Amazon

Deforestation causing loss of habitat across the region, as vulture numbers decline in Africa and long-tailed ducks disappear from Europe
Fiona Harvey 7 Jun 12;

Birds in the Amazon are under increasing threat from deforestation, while large populations of duck have disappeared from northern Europe, and vultures are under intensifying attack in Africa, according to the latest survey of the world's birds.

The Rio Branco antbird has been singled out for particular concern – it lives in the Amazon, but its relatively long lifespan makes it more vulnerable than some other species to even moderate deforestation. The hoary-throated spinetail is predicted to lose more than 80% of its habitat in the same region, putting it on the "critically endangered" list, meaning the species faces serious risk of extinction.

According to BirdLife International's update for 2012 of the IUCN red list of threatened species, close to 100 species of birds across the Amazon region are now at a greatly increased threat of extinction.

"We have previously underestimated the risk of extinction that many of Amazonia's bird species are facing," said Leon Bennun, director of science, policy and information at BirdLife. "However, given the recent weakening of Brazilian forest law, the situation may be even worse than recent studies have predicted."

In Africa, the white-backed and Rueppell's vultures have been classified as "endangered", after their numbers have decline rapidly. Vultures have been suffering across the globe, particularly in areas such as India and south-east Asia, because of poisoning from pesticides, loss of habitat and harassment from farmers. The decline in their numbers has raised fears for the future of other species, as vultures play a key role in the food chain by feeding on dead animals.

But this year's list – based on a review that takes place every four years – shows that it is not just tropical species that are facing serious threats. In northern Europe, more than one million long-tailed ducks have mysteriously disappeared from the Baltic region over the past two decades. No one is sure why this has happened, and the species is now classified as "vulnerable", while another northern European sea duck, the Velvet Scoter, has been listed as "endangered".

BirdLife called for conservation efforts to be increased, as birds across the globe face mounting threats from habitat loss, hunting and predation, pollution, and other environmental problems.

Stuart Butchart, global research coordinator for BirdLife, pointed to the success of some conservation programmes as a guide to future efforts to ensure the survival of some of the world's rarest species. For instance, in the Pacific, the Raratonga Monarch of the Cook Islands has returned from the brink of extinction, owing to a concerted attempt to control predators such as black rats, which are not native to the islands and the proliferation of which created havoc for nesting birds. In Brazil, the restinga antwren, which lives in the coastal south-east of the country, has been found to be more widespread than previously thought, while a new protected area covering some of its key habitat should help to ensure its long term survival.

Butchart said: "Such successes show the remarkable achievements that are possible where effort and dedication by conservationists and local communities are backed up with political support and adequate resources." But he said more efforts were needed, and on a wider scale, to ensure more species stay off the critically endangered list.

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International trade 'driving nature loss'

Richard Black BBC News 6 Jun 12;

Almost a third of threats to animal species around the world stem from trade to meet the demands of richer nations, a study concludes.

Forests are cut down for coffee and cocoa plantations, removing animal habitat; elephants and rhinos are poached to provide ivory to East Asia.

Researchers analysed the overall impact of all this on threatened species.

Writing in the journal Nature, they say management of supply chains and product labelling could help stem the trend.

The mainly Australian research team looked at nearly 7,000 threatened species drawn from the internationally recognised Red List.

These records were cross-referenced against analyses of more than 15,000 commodities and traced back through international supply chains.

The overall picture is one where goods whose production damages biodiversity flow from developing countries into their more prosperous counterparts - although this is becoming more complex as economies such as China quickly develop.

Previous studies have found that western demand for such commodities as Brazilian beef, Indonesian palm oil, Mexican coffee production and Vietnamese fishing was harming nature.

But this is believed to be the first attempt to document the global impact of trade on biodiversity.

Other significant issues identified include rubber exports from Malaysia, exploitative fishing in the Philippines and Thailand, production of bananas and tobacco in Colombia, and minerals mining in Ghana.
Purchasing disparity

The US, Japan and Western Europe emerge as the main places where demand is driving biodiversity loss in exporting countries, while Indonesia and Madagascar are the two countries where wildlife is most under threat as a result of international demands.

There are also some examples of high impact trade between neighbouring countries - for example, Mexican goods flowing into the US, and Malaysian produce into Singapore.

The report's authors suggest that both labelling and supply chain management can be deployed as tools against this loss.

Campaigns such as the one mounted in the 1970s against tuna caught using methods that harmed dolphins have on occasion been very successful, persuading western consumers to boycott companies whose products did not live up to their demands.

More recently, companies such as Nestle have decided to source raw materials from suppliers that agree to meet environmental standards - for example, pledging not to destroy virgin rainforest in order to grow palm oil.

The scientists also argue that governments could implement trade sanctions.

The UN Convention on International trade in Endangered Species (CITES) obliges governments to restrict trade in species that have reached a parlous state of existence.

The scientists suggest that "there is no practical difference in terms of imperilment between trading specimens and trading commodities whose production leads to their imperilment.

"The motivation for banning the first kind of trade equally applies to the second kind, and, consequently, trade in biodiversity-implicated commodities should be governed by the same control and licensing procedures."

Consumer products endanger species
The University of Sydney Science Alert 11 Jun 12;

Thirty per cent of threatened species are at risk because of consumption in the developed world according to University of Sydney research. The study mapped the world economy to trace the global trade of goods implicated in biodiversity loss such as coffee, cocoa, and lumber.

"Our findings can be used to improve the regulation and product labelling of thousands of internationally traded products," said Professor Manfred Lenzen, lead author of the research published in Nature today.

Professor Lenzen is from the Integrated Sustainability Analysis group at the University's School of Physics.

The study evaluated over five billion supply chains connecting consumers to over 15,000 commodities produced in 187 countries. This was cross-referenced with a global register of 25,000 endangered and vulnerable species.

"Until now these relationships have only been poorly understood. Our extraordinary number crunching, which took years of data collection and thousands of hours on a supercomputer to process, lets us see these global supply chains in amazing detail for the first time," Professor Lenzen said.

There is increasing awareness that developed countries' consumption of imported products can cause a biodiversity footprint that is larger abroad than at home. The study shows how this is the case for many countries, including the US, Japan, and numerous European states.

Among exporting countries, where the species losses actually occur, on average 35 per cent of recorded threats can be linked to export-led production. In Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Honduras, this figure is 50 to 60 per cent.

Papua New Guinea, for example, has 171 listed species threatened by export industries including mining, timber, coffee, and cocoa, to a few large trading partners, including Australia.

Agricultural exports from Indonesia, another Australian trading partner, affect 294 species, including tigers.

Australia's trove of unique species means that despite its high consumption, it is a net exporter of implicated goods including mining and agricultural products whose production often drives habitat loss and pollution that threaten particular species.

The researchers say the findings can be used to better protect biodiversity. On the consumer side, they hope sustainability labels become be the norm, not the exception, helped by the information this study makes available.

"We shouldn't let retailers make sustainability labels a premium product. We should ask that they always stock products that are made responsibly, from the bottom shelf to the top shelf," said Barney Foran, a co-author of the study also from the School of Physics.

On the production side, they recommend companies be required to make foreign suppliers accountable to the same production standards they hold at home, as leading manufacturers do with their Asian manufacturers. The authors also say countries should harmonise environmental laws so producers don't simply relocate to the country with the least protections.

Biodiversity will be a major focus at the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit Conference later in June.

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Consumption driving 'unprecedented' environment damage: UN

AFP Yahoo News 7 Jun 12;

Population growth and unsustainable consumption are driving Earth towards "unprecedented" environmental destruction, the UN said in a report Wednesday ahead of the Rio Summit.

Of 90 key goals to protect the environment, only four have seen good progress, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said in a planetary assessment issued only every five years.

"If current trends continue, if current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail and cannot be reversed and 'decoupled,' then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

The phonebook-sized report, the fifth edition of the Global Environment Outlook (GEO), was issued ahead of the June 20-22 UN Conference on Sustainable Development -- the 20-year follow-up to the landmark Earth Summit, also in Rio.

Preceded by a series of forums gathering as many as 50,000 policymakers, business executives and activists, the summit aims at plotting a course for green development over the next two decades.

But the report warned of many challenges, painting a tableau of a planet whose resources were being stressed into the red zone.

Since 1950, the world's population has doubled to seven billion and is on course for around 9.3 billion by 2050 and some 10 billion by 2100.

At the same time, use of natural resources has zoomed as emerging countries follow rich economies in a lifestyle that is gluttonous on energy and use of water, habitat and fisheries.

"The scale, spread and rate of change of global drivers are without precedent. Burgeoning populations and growing economies are pushing environmental systems to destabilizing limits," said the report.

It analyzed 90 objectives for the environment identified by UN members.

Only four have seen significant progress: scrapping CFC chemicals that damage Earth's protective ozone layer; removing lead from fuel; increasing access to clean water for the poor; and boosting research to reduce marine pollution.

In 40 goals that UN member states asked to be monitored, there was "some" progress, such as expanding national parks and tackling deforestation.

But there was little or no progress in 24 others, including curbing climate change, fisheries depletion and desertification.

"The scientific evidence, built over decades, is overwhelming and leaves little room for doubt," Steiner told a press conference in Rio.

"The moment has come to put away the paralysis of indecision, acknowledge the facts and face up to the common humanity that unites all peoples," he said.

"Rio+20 is a moment to turn sustainable development from aspiration and patchy implementation into a genuine path to progress and prosperity for this and the next generations to come."

For climate change, the last decade was the warmest on record, and in 2010 emissions from fossil fuels were the highest ever.

"Under current models, greenhouse-gas emissions could double over the next 50 years, leading to (a) rise in global temperature of three degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) or more by the end of the century," UNEP said.

"The annual economic damage from climate change is estimated at 1-2 percent of world GDP by 2100 if temperatures increase by 2.5 C (4.5 F)," it warned. The UN's target is 2 C (3.6 F).

However, there have been gains in energy efficiency and "some progress" towards meeting emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol, UNEP said.

For eight goals, including preservation of the coral reefs, things have deteriorated.

The world fell far short of meeting a Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of significantly reducing destruction of biodiversity by 2010.

"Around 20 percent of vertebrate species are under threat," said UNEP.

"The extinction risk is increasing faster for corals than for any other group of living organisms, with the condition of coral reefs declining by 38 percent since 1980. Rapid contraction is projected by 2050."

Data was insufficient to enable a judgment on the 14 other goals.

The GEO report proposed a panoply of remedial measures for Earth's population to start living within its means, including more efficient use of energy and eco-friendlier resources.

Also important was to redefine human progress so that it goes beyond the simple yardstick of economic growth to included quality of life issues.

The Rio Summit is to assess progress since the 1992 Earth Summit, considered a landmark for creating awareness on climate change and biodiversity.

Among ideas that are being debated for the summit is to set down "Sustainable Development Goals" that would succeed the MDGs when their deadline comes up in 2015.

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Environmental collapse now a serious threat: scientists

AFP Yahoo News 7 Jun 12;

Climate change, population growth and environmental destruction could cause a collapse of the ecosystem just a few generations from now, scientists warned on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The paper by 22 top researchers said a "tipping point" by which the biosphere goes into swift and irreversible change, with potentially cataclysmic impacts for humans, could occur as early as this century.

The warning contrasts with a mainstream view among scientists that environmental collapse would be gradual and take centuries.

The study appears ahead of the June 20-22 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, the 20-year followup to the Earth Summit that set down priorities for protecting the environment.

The Nature paper, written by biologists, ecologists, geologists and palaeontologists from three continents, compared the biological impact of past episodes of global change with what is happening today.

The factors in today's equation include a world population that is set to rise from seven billion to around 9.3 billion by mid-century and global warming that will outstrip the UN target of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

The team determined that once 50-90 percent of small-scale ecosystems become altered, the entire eco-web tips over into a new state, characterised especially by species extinctions.

Once the shift happens, it cannot be reversed.

To support today's population, about 43 percent of Earth's ice-free land surface is being used for farming or habitation, according to the study.

On current trends, the 50 percent mark will be reached by 2025, a point the scientists said is worryingly close to the tipping point.

If that happened, collapse would entail a shocking disruption for the world's food supply, with bread-basket regions curtailed in their ability to grow corn, wheat, rice, fodder and other essential crops.

"It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point," said lead author Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California in Berkeley.

"The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations."

The authors stressed it was unclear when this feared tipover would happen, given blanks in knowledge about the phenomenon.

And they said there were plenty of solutions -- such as ending unsustainable patterns of growth and resource waste -- that mean it is not inevitable.

"In a nutshell, humans have not done anything really important to stave off the worst because the social structures for doing something just aren't there," said Arne Mooers, a professor of biodiversity at Simon Fraser University in Canada's British Columbia.

"My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the Earth's history are more than pretty worried," he said in a press release. "In fact, some are terrified."

Past shifts examined in the study included the end of the last Ice Age, between 14,000 and 11,000 years ago, and five species mass extinctions which occurred around 443 million, 359 million, 251 million, 200 million and 65 million years ago.

Earth today is vulnerable to fast change because of the growing connectedness between ecosystems, voracious use of resources and an unprecedented surge in greenhouse gases, the authors concluded.

In a report on Wednesday issued ahead of the "Rio+20" summit, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that burgeoning populations and unsustainable patterns of growth were driving Earth towards "unprecedented" eco-damage.

Tipping Point? Earth Headed for Catastrophic Collapse, Researchers Warn
Stephanie Pappas Yahoo News 7 Jun 12;

Earth is rapidly headed toward a catastrophic breakdown if humans don't get their act together, according to an international group of scientists.

Writing Wednesday (June 6) in the journal Nature, the researchers warn that the world is headed toward a tipping point marked by extinctions and unpredictable changes on a scale not seen since the glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago.

"There is a very high possibility that by the end of the century, the Earth is going to be a very different place," study researcher Anthony Barnosky told LiveScience. Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology from the University of California, Berkeley, joined a group of 17 other scientists to warn that this new planet might not be a pleasant place to live.

"You can envision these state changes as a fast period of adjustment where we get pushed through the eye of the needle," Barnosky said. "As we're going through the eye of the needle, that's when we see political strife, economic strife, war and famine." [Top 10 Ways to Destroy Earth]

The danger of tipping

Barnosky and his colleagues reviewed research on climate change, ecology and Earth's tipping points that break the camel's back, so to speak. At certain thresholds, putting more pressure on the environment leads to a point of no return, Barnosky said. Suddenly, the planet responds in unpredictable ways, triggering major global transitions.

The most recent example of one of these transitions is the end of the last glacial period. Within not much more than 3,000 years, the Earth went from being 30 percent covered in ice to its present, nearly ice-free condition. Most extinctions and ecological changes (goodbye, woolly mammoths) occurred in just 1,600 years. Earth's biodiversity still has not recovered to what it was.

Today, Barnosky said, humans are causing changes even faster than the natural ones that pushed back the glaciers — and the changes are bigger. Driven by a 35 percent increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide since the start of the Industrial Revolution, global temperatures are rising faster than they did back then, Barnosky said. Likewise, humans have completely transformed 43 percent of Earth's land surface for cities and agriculture, compared with the 30 percent land surface transition that occurred at the end of the last glacial period. Meanwhile, the human population has exploded, putting ever more pressure on existing resources. [7 Billion Population Milestones]

"Every change we look at that we have accomplished in the past couple of centuries is actually more than what preceded one of these major state changes in the past," Barnosky said.

Backing away from the ledge

The results are difficult to predict, because tipping points, by their definition, take the planet into uncharted territory. Based on past transitions, Barnosky and his colleagues predict a major loss of species (during the end of the last glacial period, half of the large-bodied mammal species in the world disappeared), as well as changes in the makeup of species in various communities on the local level. Meanwhile, humans may well be knotting our own noose as we burn through Earth's resources.

"These ecological systems actually give us our life support, our crops, our fisheries, clean water," Barnosky said. As resources shift from one nation to another, political instability can easily follow.

Pulling back from the ledge will require international cooperation, Barnosky said. Under business-as-usual conditions, humankind will be using 50 percent of the land surface on the planet by 2025. It seems unavoidable that the human population will reach 9 billion by 2050, so we'll have to become more efficient to sustain ourselves, he said. That means more efficient energy use and energy production, a greater focus on renewable resources, and a need to save species and habitat today for future generations.

"My bottom line is that I want the world in 50 to 100 years to be at least as good as it is now for my children and their children, and I think most people would say the same," Barnosky said. "We're at a crossroads where if we choose to do nothing we really do face these tipping points and a less-good future for our immediate descendents."

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U.N. sounds environment alarm ahead of Rio summit

* Only four of 90 goals making significant progress
* Climate change, fish stocks showing little or no progress
* Rio+20 conference on sustainability from June 20-22
Jeff Coelho and David Fogarty Reuters 6 Jun 12;

LONDON/SINGAPORE, June 6 (Reuters) - Population growth, urbanisation and consumption are set to inflict irreversible damage on the planet, the United Nations said on Wednesday, and called for urgent agreement on new green targets to save the environment.

The U.N. Environment Programme sounded the alarm in its fifth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-5) report, published two weeks before the Rio+20 summit in Brazil, one of the biggest environment meetings in years.

The June 20-22 meeting is expected to attract more than 50,000 participants from governments, companies and environmental and lobby groups and attempt to set new goals across seven core themes including food security, water and energy.

The GEO-5 report, three years in the making and the United Nations' main health-check of the planet, urges governments to create more ambitious targets or toughen existing ones, most of which have failed to deliver.

Time was running very short, U.N. Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, as the planet heads for 9 billion people by 2050 and the global economy consumes ever larger amounts of natural resources.

"If current trends continue, if current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail and cannot be reversed and 'decoupled', then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation," Steiner said in a statement.

Of the 90 most important environmental goals in existence, only four are making significant progress, the report said.

Some of the successful goals included those to prevent ozone depletion and providing access to clean water supplies. But it detected little or no progress in 24 goals, such as those aiming to address climate change, depleting fish stocks and expanding desertification.

UNEP called on governments to focus their policies on the key drivers behind climate change, notably population growth and urbanisation, fossil fuel-based energy consumption and globalisation.

Scientists have linked the burning of fossil fuels - oil, coal and natural gas - to an acceleration of climatic changes such as severe drought and flooding. There are also economic costs.

The annual economic damage from climate change is estimated at 1-2 percent of world GDP by 2100, if temperatures increase by 2.5 degrees Celsius, UNEP says.

Current models suggest greenhouse gas emissions could double over the next 50 years, leading to rise in global temperature of 3 degrees Celsius or more by the end of the century.

Most of the impacts from climate change will be felt in many developing countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, where population growth and rising consumption are putting more stress on dwindling natural resources, the GEO-5 report said.


The Rio+20 summit will not seek to repeat the same outcome of the Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago, which led to the Kyoto Protocol on capping greenhouse gas emissions and a treaty on biodiversity.

This month's summit is set against a backdrop of a faltering global economy and deep concerns over Europe's financial future. The goals this time in Rio are aspirational, not mandatory, yet negotiations on a draft text have been fraught. About a fifth of the text has now been agreed ahead of the meeting, the United Nations said on Monday.

Even mandatory targets have made little or no progress since 1992.

Global carbon dioxide emissions have increased nearly 40 percent between 1992 and 2010, led mainly by rapid growth in large developing nations such as Brazil, China and India, UNEP data shows.

Biodiversity is also on the wane, most notably in the tropics with a 30 percent decline since 1992.

Last month, environmental group WWF said the world would have to be 50 percent bigger to have enough land and forests to provide for the current levels of consumption and carbon emissions.

The Asia-Pacific region, home to more than half of humanity, is key to creating a greener future, says the GEO-5 report. The region is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions globally and is also rapidly urbanising.

Transport-related emissions are expected to increase by 57 per cent worldwide between 2005 and 2030, with China and India accounting for more than half, the report says.

The region is also facing increased demands for water for agriculture and industry yet aquifer levels are falling, rivers are increasingly polluted and being dammed for irrigation and power generation.

The GEO-5 report said goals with specific, measurable targets demonstrated the most success, such as the bans on ozone depleting substances and lead in petrol.

It also says it is crucial for governments to put a price on natural resources such as mangroves, rivers and forests and include this in national accounts.

Steiner called on nations to act.

"The moment has come to put away the paralysis of indecision, acknowledge the facts and face up to the common humanity that unites all peoples." (Reporting by Jeff Coelho and David Fogarty; Editing by Rosalind Russell)

Rio+ 20 Earth summit could collapse, WWF warns
Countries fail to agree on draft text for sustainable development goals and definition of key objectives including green economy
John Vidal 6 Jun 12;

The Rio+ 20 Earth summit could collapse after countries failed to agree on acceptable language just two weeks before 120 world leaders arrive at the biggest UN summit ever organised, WWF warned on Wednesday.

An extra week given over to the UN's preparatory negotiations in New York fell into disarray over the weekend as talks aimed to bring countries together to set a new path for sustainable development splintered into 19 separate dialogues with major internal disagreements on the processes to be followed.

"We are facing two likely scenarios – an agreement so weak it is meaningless, or complete collapse. Neither of these options would give the world what it needs. Country positions are still too entrenched and too far apart to provide a meaningful draft agreement for approval by an expected 120 heads of state", said WWF director general Jim Leape.

Countries are not being asked by the UN to legally commit themselves to anything, but only to sign up to an aspirational "roadmap" contained in a document called "the future we want" and to a commitment to the so-called 'green economy' of jobs generated from industries such as renewable energy and energy efficiency. It is hoped that they will also agree to introduce by 2015 a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) similar in ambition to the millennium development goals which covered areas like HIV reduction and clean water provision. The SDGs could cover areas such as energy, water and food.

However, in a repeat of battles played out in global climate and trade talks, they have fought bitterly over every comma and phrase in the prepartory meetings and in particular are still deeply divided over the definition and scope of the phrase "green economy". They are now expected to take several years to identify, formulate and agree on the goals.

According to both WWF and Malaysia-based NGO Third World Network, the most recent draft text put forward in New York was a "significant weakening" of previous drafts, particularly in the areas of valuing natural wealth and ocean protection.

The best that is now likely to come from Rio is a process aimed to achieve agreement over many years, and a series of eye-catching initiatives proposed by individual countries, UN bodies and large businesses often working together. These include actions to make transport more sustainable, reduce hunger, improve the health of oceans, and to provide electricity for everyone in the world.

Definition of the concept and principles guiding the "green economy" have proved the hardest to reach because what is decided at Rio could favour or limit the development of some countries. The EU and other rich countries want all countries to agree to remodel their economies to manage resources more efficiently, develop renewable and low carbon energy, and reduce pollution.

But G77 countries have argued that while the goal is acceptable, they risk being at a competitive disadvantage in the race for future global markets and are suspicious that the green economy is a pretense for rich countries to erect "green" trade barriers on developing country exports.

They further argue that if they are to sign up to the "green economy", there should be commitments by rich countries to new finance and technology transfer agreements – something so far unacceptable to the US and EU.

Many environment and development NGOs are also fearful of the green economy proposals, which they believe will encourage countries to put monetary value on all nature, reducing forest and ocean protection to markets and profits and undermining principles of ecological justice and collective wellbeing.

"Instead of putting a price on nature we must recognise that Nature is not a thing or mere supplier of resources. What we need is to forge a new system of development based on the principles of collective wellbeing, social and environmental justice and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all", said Pablo Solon, former Bolivian ambassador to the UN and now director of Bangkok-based NGO Focus on the Global South .

"We cannot keep promoting such destructive model of development that does not acknowledge the planetary limits of economic growth", he said.

Divisions between the countries are now thought to be as deep as any seen in the long-running and separate climate negotiations. Many developing countries are said to be distraught that the US is consistently trying to bury the principles guiding sustainable development agreed after fierce struggles at the Rio earth summit in 1992 and its follow-up meeting in Johannesburg in 2002.

"We are in real danger of going backwards. [The US] wants to reject principles including national sovereignty, the right to development, common but differentiated responsibilities and the obligation not to cause environmental harm", said one observer.

Despite the differences, UN leaders remained upbeat. "I sense a real dialogue – a real willingness to find common ground," said Rio+20 Secretary-General Sha Zukang. "This spirit is encouraging, and we must carry it to Rio."

Kim Sook, ambassador of the Republic of Korea and co-chair of the preparatory committee said that before the negotiations, only 6% of the text had been agreed upon. Now, that number has jumped to more than 20%, with many additional paragraphs "close to agreement".

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Scientists Warn Geoengineering May Disrupt Rainfall

Chris Wickham PlanetArk 7 Jun 12;

Large-scale engineering projects aimed at fighting global warming could radically reduce rainfall in Europe and North America, a team of scientists from four European countries have warned.

Geoengineering projects are controversial, even though they are largely theoretical at this point. They range from mimicking the effects of large volcanic eruptions by releasing sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, to deploying giant mirrors in space to deflect the sun's rays.

Proponents say they could be a rapid response to rising global temperatures but environmentalists argue they are a distraction from the need to reduce man-made carbon emissions.

Critics also point to a lack of solid research into unintended consequences and the absence of any international governance structure for such projects, whose effects could transcend national borders.

A small geoengineering experiment in the UK was recently abandoned due to a dispute over attempts by some of the team involved to patent the technology.

In this new study scientists from Germany, Norway, France and the UK used four different computer models that mimic the earth's climate to see how they responded to increased levels of carbon dioxide coupled with reduced radiation from the sun.

Their scenario assumed a world with four times the carbon dioxide concentration of the preindustrial world, which lead author Hauke Schmidt says is at the upper end, but in the range of what is considered possible at the end of this century.

They found that global rainfall was reduced by about 5 percent on average using all four models.

"Climate engineering cannot be seen as a substitute for a policy pathway of mitigating climate change through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions," they said in the study, published in Earth System Dynamics, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union.

Under the scenario studied, rainfall diminished by about 15 percent, or about 100 millimeters per year, compared to pre-industrial levels, in large areas of North America and northern Eurasia.

Over central South America, all the models showed a decrease in rainfall that reached more than 20 percent in parts of the Amazon region.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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World's urban waste mountain a 'silent problem that is growing daily'

World Bank report urges city authorities to reduce, reuse, recycle or recover energy from growing volume of urban waste
Mark Tran 6 Jun 12;

The amount of rubbish generated by city dwellers is set to rise steeply in the next two decades, with much of the increase coming in fast-growing cities in developing countries, according to a World Bank report published on Wednesday.

The report, What a Waste: a global review of solid waste management, for the first time provides data on municipal solid waste generation, collection, composition and disposal by country and by region.

The amount of municipal solid waste is growing fastest in China – which overtook the US as the world's largest waste generator in 2004 – other parts of east Asia, and parts of eastern Europe and the Middle East, the report says. Growth rates for rubbish in these areas are similar to their rates for urbanisation and increases in GDP.

The report estimates the amount of municipal solid waste will rise from the current 1.3bn tonnes a year to 2.2bn by 2025. The annual cost of solid waste management is projected to rise from $205bn to $375bn, with cost increasing most sharply in poorer countries. The report's authors point to a looming crisis in waste treatment as living standards rise and urban populations grow.

"Improving solid waste management, especially in the rapidly growing cities of low-income countries, is becoming a more and more urgent issue," said Rachel Kyte, vice-president of sustainable development at the World Bank. "The findings of this report are sobering, but they also offer hope that once the extent of this issue is recognised, local and national leaders, as well as the international community, will mobilise to put in place programmes to reduce, reuse, recycle, or recover as much waste as possible before burning it (and recovering the energy) or otherwise disposing of it. Measuring the extent of the problem is a critical first step to resolving it."

The report notes that municipal solid waste management is the most important service a city provides. In poorer countries, rubbish collection and processing is often the largest single budget item for cities, and one of the largest employers.

A city that cannot effectively manage its waste is rarely able to manage more complex services such as health, education, or transportation, according to the report, and improving waste management is one of the most effective ways of strengthening overall municipal management.

The authors of the report say an integrated solid waste management plan is needed. Key to such a plan is consultation and input from all parties affected, including citizen groups and those working on behalf of the poor and the disadvantaged. Public health and environmental protection aspects of any such plan are also critical.

"What we're finding in these figures is not that surprising," said Dan Hoornweg, co-author of the report. "What is surprising, however, is that when you add the figures up we're looking at a relatively silent problem that is growing daily. The challenges surrounding municipal solid waste are going to be enormous, on a scale of, if not greater than, the challenges we are currently experiencing with climate change. This report should be seen as a giant wake-up call to policy makers everywhere."

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