Interview: Why Brazil’s Pledges On
Carbon Emissions Are Not Enough
In recent years, Brazil has been widely praised for reducing deforestation in the Amazon by 75 percent from 2005 to 2014.
Maria Fernanda Gebara
But with United Nations climate talks set to begin next week in Paris, analysts are taking a closer look at Brazil’s pledges to cut deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, with some saying there is less there than meets the eye. One of the more outspoken critics of the country’s CO2-reduction policies is Brazilian political scientist Maria Fernanda Gebara. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Gebara, a research associate in the Department for International Development at the London School of Economics, says Brazil’s policies will do little more than stabilize emissions for the next 15 years, will fail to clamp down on illegal logging, and will continue the nation’s dismal record of developing solar and wind power.
Read the interview.
20 Nov 2015:
Global Forest Cover Estimates
Vary Widely Based on Definition, Study Says
Measurements of global forest cover can vary widely — by as much as 6 percent of the planet's land area, a swath equal in size
to China, according to research
from the University of Maryland. The reason behind the discrepancy actually lies in how different researchers and organizations define forest cover, the researchers note. Geographers have long called for the definition to be standardized, but until now, no one had quantified the scope of the variance. The largest ambiguities in forest calculations are driven by uncertainties near savannas, shrublands, mountain ridge forests, and other areas with intermediate tree cover. “It’s not technology’s fault” that forest maps are inconsistent, said lead author Joseph Sexton. But until the definitions are standardized, he said, it will be difficult to properly assess land cover or conservation measures related to climate change and biodiversity.
10 Nov 2015:
New Online Tool Maps Lands
Managed and Protected by Indigenous People
Indigenous people have historically demarcated their ancestral lands in a variety of ways, from rudimentary agreements and maps to,
A new online tool maps native lands.
more recently, drone surveys. But until now, there has been no systematic way of recording the actual boundaries and legal status of each swath of land managed by native peoples, who, as research shows, often do a better job of protecting their lands than local or national governments. LandMark
, a new tool launched today by a broad partnership including the World Resources Institute (WRI), is the first online, interactive platform for mapping lands managed by native communities. It was created to fill a critical gap in indigenous and community rights and make clear that these lands are not vacant, idle, or available to outsiders for exploitative development such as mining, palm oil plantations, or timber concessions. But Abdon Nababan, secretary general of the Indonesia's Indigenous Peoples' Alliance, cautioned that “these maps do us no good unless they become public knowledge and indigenous rights are recognized by all who have ambitions to grab our lands.”
23 Oct 2015:
Powerful Foreign Companies
Behind Much of Laos' Illegal Deforestation
Industrial-scale illegal logging is routine in Laos, a southeast Asian nation which has seen its dense forest cover decline from
Illegal logging in Laos by a large Vietnamese company
29 to 8.2 percent over the past decade, and the practice is gaining momentum under the guise of special infrastructure projects, according to information obtained
by the London-based advocacy group Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). In 2013, Laos exported 1.8 million cubic yards of timber to Vietnam and China — more than 10 times the country’s official harvest, EIA found. Trade data also show that in 2014 China received $1 billion in illegal timber from Laos — a 22-fold increase from 2008. The high figures imply that the bulk of this timber is composed of valuable rosewood species, which are supposedly protected under Lao law. Virtually all logging operations are linked to infrastructure projects, especially hydropower dams, roads, mining, and agricultural plantations, EIA says.
09 Oct 2015:
‘Land Grabbing’ Is Accelerating
As Pressure on Agriculture Resources Grows
An area about the size of Japan — roughly 140,000 square miles — has been purchased or
A land-grabbing operation in Uganda
leased by foreign entities for agricultural use during the last 15 years, according to a report
by the Worldwatch Institute. An additional 58,000 square miles are under negotiation, the report found. “Land grabbing,” a term for the purchase or lease of agricultural land by foreign interests, has emerged as a threat to food security in several nations. Globally, over half of this land is in Africa, especially in water-rich countries like the Congo. The largest area acquired in a single country is in Papua New Guinea, with nearly 15,500 square miles (over 8 percent of the nation’s total land cover) sold or leased to foreign entities. Foreign purchase of land in developing countries has surged since 2005 in response to rising food prices and growing biofuel demand in the U.S. and the European Union, as well as droughts in the U.S., Argentina, and Australia. “Essentially no additional suitable [agricultural] land remains in a belt around much of the middle of the planet,” writes Gary Gardner, a contributing author to the report.
30 Sep 2015:
New Agreement Yields Hope for
Saving World's Second-Largest Rainforest
In advance of the Paris climate talks, European and African countries announced
an initiative to stem the rising tide of forest destruction in Central Africa, one of the world’s last large expanses of rainforest. Norway is the first country to pledge funds to the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) — up to $47 million dollars per year through 2020 — to support the program. The agreement calls for the six participating Central African countries — Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo — to devise national investment plans that will tackle complex factors leading to deforestation, and it prioritizes long-term solutions over short-term, one-time actions. Central Africa is home to the world's second-largest tropical forest, but the region is increasingly under threat, mostly from small-scale slash-and-burn agriculture. Its preservation is key to global efforts to slow climate change, scientists say.
17 Sep 2015:
Chaotic Illegal Timber Trade
Threatens Crucial Forests in Southeast Asia
A murky, illegal timber trade enabled by systemic corruption exists between China and Myanmar and is worth hundreds of millions of
Illegal log trucks in Kachin wait to cross into China.
dollars annually, making it one of the world's largest illegal timber schemes, according to a new analysis by the Environmental Investigation Agency
(EIA). At stake are some of the most ecologically important remaining forests in Southeast Asia, EIA says. The report documents how Chinese businesses pay in gold bars for the rights to log entire mountains and smuggle timber out of Myanmar's conflict-torn state of Kachin. The stolen timber, primarily high-value species of rosewood and teak, is increasingly being sourced from deeper within Myanmar to feed factories in south and east China. The trade appeared to have peaked in 2005, when 1.3 million cubic yards of logs crossed the border. A brief hiatus then occurred when Chinese authorities intervened, but the scale is once again nearing peak levels, the EIA says.
10 Sep 2015:
Developing Nations Take Lead In
Cutting Forestry and Agriculture Emissions
Countries with the most potential to slash emissions from agriculture and forestry are skimping on climate commitments, while some developing countries are making the boldest and most detailed pledges for cutting land-use-related emissions. That is the conclusion of a new analysis
of climate pledges from China, Canada, Ethiopia, and Morocco by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Major opportunities to cut forestry and farming emissions exist for Canada and, especially, China, the report says. For example, UCS recently found that China could cut CO2 emissions by 1.2 gigatons per year by 2020, but its climate pledge fails to indicate how the country would do that. Canada’s climate pledge is also vague and unambitious, the report says. In contrast, Ethiopia and Morocco have released detailed and ambitious pledges, especially regarding agricultural emissions. An earlier UCS analysis also found that Mexico’s land-use-related climate pledges exceed those from the European Union and the United States.
04 Sep 2015:
Maya Permanently Altered Land
To Respond to Climate Change, Study Says
Mayan activity more than 2,000 years ago contributed to the decline of Central America's tropical lowlands and continues to influence the land and environment today, say researchers at the University of Texas at Austin
. Evidence shows that during the "Mayacene" — a period from 3,000 to 1,000 years ago when humans began greatly affecting the environment — the Maya's advanced urban and rural infrastructure altered tropical forest ecosystems. Clay and soil sequences indicate erosion and land-use changes, and sediments near wetlands reveal chemical signatures of agriculture, says the study, which was published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews
. The researchers say features such as constructed wetlands, vast field systems, and terraces show that the Maya managed land and water to adapt to climate change and rising sea levels. "Though it has no doubt accelerated in the last century, humans' impact on the environment has been going on a lot longer," said lead researcher Tim Beach.
03 Sep 2015:
Tropical Tree Cover Loss
Accelerated in 2014, Satellite Analysis Finds
More than 45 million acres of trees were cut down last year — an area twice the size of Portugal — according to an analysis
by the University of Maryland and Google. Tropical nations lost more than half of that total — nearly 25 million acres of tree cover, an area roughly the size of South Korea. Brazil and Indonesia, the two countries most often associated with deforestation, had been making gains toward stemming the problem, but 2014 saw an uptick in tree cover loss in both countries. The situation is especially concerning in Cambodia, where deforestation is accelerating faster than anywhere else in the world due to the development of rubber plantations. Last year Cambodia lost three times more tree cover than in 2001, the analysis found.
25 Aug 2015:
Endangered Chimp Population
Much Larger Than Estimated, Study Shows
A population of endangered eastern chimpanzees in Uganda is actually significantly larger than scientists had thought, new research
from the University of Southern California shows. Using DNA from fecal samples, the scientists estimated the size of the chimp population living in two reserves in western Uganda to be 250 to 320 chimps, divided among at least nine communities, whereas previous estimates had pegged the total at roughly 70. Because the forest they live in is not protected, however, the chimpanzees have been heavily impacted by forest fragmentation, and the fruit trees they rely on are rapidly being cut down, the researchers say. The eastern chimp population that lives in this region is important because it represents the growing status quo for this species, the researchers note — they no longer inhabit unbroken swaths of forest, but instead carve out an existence in shrinking forest patches.
24 Aug 2015:
Research Links Amazon
Fires and North American Hurricanes
After studying decades of data on hurricanes, sea surface temperatures, and Amazon fire frequency, researchers have concluded
North Atlantic surface temperatures
that years in which warm North Atlantic waters create powerful hurricanes are followed by periods of drought and fire in the Amazon
rainforest. University of California, Irvine scientists say their research has shown that frequent and powerful North Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes tend to pull a large belt of tropical rainfall to the north, drawing moisture away from the Amazon. The resulting dry spells lead to an increase in severity and duration of fires, which tend to be set in the Amazon by humans clearing land for agriculture. The research is expected to enable meteorologists to better understand seasonal outlooks for drought and fire risk in the Amazon, which could help reduce the extensive rainforest fires that emit large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
31 Jul 2015:
Severe Droughts Affect Forests
And CO2 Storage for Years, Study Shows
Severe drought can affect a forest's growth for up to four years, a period during which it is less effective at removing carbon
A stressed forest in the southwestern United States
from the atmosphere, a new study
reports in the journal Science
. Standard climate models have assumed that forests and other vegetation bounce back quickly from extreme drought, but that assumption is far off the mark, the researchers say. Looking at data from more than 1,300 forest sites dating back to 1948, they found that living trees took an average of two to four years to recover and resume normal growth rates after droughts ended. Frequent droughts in places like the western U.S. could significantly impact the ability of forests to sequester carbon, the study found. Researchers aren't sure how drought causes these long-lasting changes, but they say there are likely three causes: Loss of carbohydrate and foliage reserves may impair growth; pests and diseases may accumulate in drought-stressed trees; and lasting damage to vascular tissues impairs water transport.
Interview: The High Environmental
Cost of Illicit Marijuana Cultivation
As some U.S. states move to legalize marijuana, one issue has been largely ignored in the policy debates: the serious
environmental effects of the marijuana industry. A new paper co-authored by ecologist Mary Power details many of those impacts by focusing on marijuana cultivation in California, where most of the marijuana consumed in the U.S. is grown. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Power describes how California growers siphon off scarce water resources, poison wildlife, and erode fragile soils. What’s needed, she contends, is legalization of marijuana at the federal level, which would likely drive down marijuana prices. “As long as there is a market that will pay enough to compensate for the brutally hard work they do to grow this stuff in forested mountains,” she says, “then it will keep growing.”
Read the interview.
01 Jul 2015:
Church of England Divests from
Oil Firm Exploring Virunga National Park
The Church of England has divested its holdings
in the British oil and gas company Soco International, citing ethical concerns over Soco's attempts to
Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park
drill for oil in Congo's Virunga National Park. The national park, Africa's oldest, is home to the largest surviving populations of endangered mountain gorillas and hippos
. The Church of England's investment fund is valued at roughly $10.5 billion, and $2.5 million of that had been invested in Soco International. The move marks only the third time in recent years that the church has divested from a company on ethical grounds. In 2012 it sold its holdings in News Corporation to protest the phone-hacking scandal, and in 2010 it divested from a mining corporation over human rights violations associated with its operations in India.
Photo Gallery: Scenes From
The Golden Age of Animal Tracking
Scientists are following the lives of animals in more detail than ever before, thanks to a new generation of tracking and tagging devices. From beluga whales that collect data on the Arctic Ocean to ducks that help track the spread of avian flu, data gathered by and about animals is being used to identify conservation hotspots, reduce human-animal conflicts, and monitor the health of the planet. In an e360
gallery, we look at some intriguing projects that have used state-of-the-art animal tracking and monitoring technology.
View the gallery.
16 Jun 2015:
Human Data Can Improve
Ecosystem Service Models, Study Says
Protected forests in Brazil, Costa Rica, Indonesia, and Thailand have prevented the release of more than 1 billion tons
Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.
of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, an ecosystem service worth at least $5 billion, Georgia State University economists found
. Their conclusion about the monetary benefit of those forest protections is based on a new method they derived for valuing services such as carbon capture, conservation, and improvements in air and water quality. Instead of relying on modeling alone, the new method uses interviews and on-the-ground data to see how conservation programs affect human behavior and impact ecosystems. By combining the two types of information — environmental models and social science data — public officials can gain more realistic insights into how a particular policy might affect the environment and the people who interact with it, the researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
04 Jun 2015:
Seven Tiny Frog Species
Are Discovered in Brazilian Forest
Seven new species of a highly miniaturized, brightly colored frog genus known as Brachycephalus
One of the species of miniaturized frogs.
discovered in the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest, researchers report
today. The frog species are restricted to cloud forests in no more than a few adjacent mountaintops, making them highly vulnerable to extinction, the researchers say. The cloud forests they inhabit are particularly sensitive to climatic conditions, and small shifts can cause major changes in the distribution of the forests. The frogs' adaptation to these specific environments prevents them from migrating across valleys as the cloud forest shifts. The long-term preservation of these species might involve not only the protection of their habitats but also more direct management efforts, such as rearing in captivity, the researchers say. Brachycephalus
frogs are among the planet's smallest terrestrial vertebrates, with adult sizes often not exceeding 1 cm in length.
26 May 2015:
Officials Uncover “Mass Graves”
Of Illegal Timber in Malaysia Forest Reserve
Malaysian authorities have uncovered timber “mass graves”
where illegal loggers attempted to conceal valuable timber
A "mass grave" containing illegally logged timber.
following a government crackdown on unlawful logging that started in February. The sites, located in the Belum-Temengor forest reserve, were revealed after the recent excavation of patches of land roughly the size of football fields, beneath which an estimated two stories of felled trees were stacked. “We believe that about 400 tons of logs worth more than RM1 million ($250,000 USD) were buried at the three locations and the culprits are waiting for the right time to dig them out and sell them,” says Anuar Mohd Noh, assistant commissioner for the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), which conducted a joint operation with the country’s forestry department to track down illicit logging activities.
22 May 2015:
Many Trees in Southeast U.S.
Closely Related to Tree Species in Asia
DNA studies show that more than half the trees and shrubs in southern Appalachia can trace their ancestry to eastern Asia.
A flowering dogwood tree
Based on molecular studies of more than 250 species of trees and shrubs from Georgia to Virginia, researchers at Duke University found close ties between East Asian species, such as dogwoods, and species in the southeastern U.S. Forests throughout the northern hemisphere were joined together by the supercontinent Laurasia as recently as 180 million years ago. Then, as the great northern land mass broke into continents, eras of glaciation wiped out various tree species. Forest remnants hung on in China, Japan, small parts of Europe, and Appalachia, which explains the similarity in tree species. The research was published in the American Journal of Botany.
Interview: A Grassroots Effort to
Save Africa’s Most Endangered Ape
The Cross River gorilla population, with fewer than 300 individuals, has been pushed to the brink of extinction in equatorial
Africa. At the center of the fight to save this beleaguered ape population is Nigerian scientist Inaoyom Imong, who comes from the region and knows its forests — and its people — intimately. In a Yale e360
interview, Imong describes the various pressures that have reduced populations of this gorilla subspecies and explains how a few thousand people living in rural Nigeria and Cameroon hold the key to saving this magnificent ape.
Read the interview.
15 May 2015:
Indonesia Extends Major Logging
Moratorium, Which Critics Decry as Weak
Indonesia has extended a major logging moratorium
aimed at preserving the archipelago's vast swathes
Deforestation for a palm oil plantation in Indonesia.
of tropical rainforest, but environmentalists say the logging ban does not go nearly far enough. The country, home to some of the world's most biodiverse rain forests and endangered species such as tigers and elephants, first enacted the moratorium in 2011, banning new logging permits for primary and virgin forests and peatlands. The moratorium was first extended until 2015, and now has been extended again, to 2017. Environmental groups have criticized the moratorium, however, saying that it still allows deforestation for ventures deemed in the national interest, such as infrastructure projects and agricultural plantations. Indonesia is the largest economy in Southeast Asia and third-largest carbon emitter in the world. Huge swathes of its forests have been chopped down by palm oil, mining, and timber companies.
15 Apr 2015:
Entries Invited for e360
Contest For Best Environmental Videos
The second annual Yale Environment 360 Video Contest is now accepting entries. The contest honors the best environmental videos. Entries must be videos that focus on an environmental issue or theme, have not been widely viewed online, and are a maximum of 15 minutes in length. Videos that are funded by an organization or company and are primarily about that organization or company are not eligible. The first-place winner will receive $2,000, two runners-up will each receive $500, and all winning entries will be posted on Yale Environment 360
. The contest judges will be Yale Environment 360
editor Roger Cohn, New Yorker
writer and e360
contributor Elizabeth Kolbert, and documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon. The deadline for entries is June 15, 2015.
30 Mar 2015:
Warming Winters Not Main
Cause of Pine Beetle Outbreaks, Study Says
Milder winters can't be blamed for the full extent of recent mountain pine beetle outbreaks in the western United States, according
Pine forest affected by mountain pine beetles
to a new study
by Dartmouth and U.S. Forest Service researchers. Winters have been warming across the western U.S. states for decades, as overall the coldest winter night has warmed by 4 degrees C since 1960. But that warming trend could only be the primary driver of increasing pine beetle outbreaks in regions where winter temperatures have historically killed most of the beetles, such as in the Middle Rockies, eastern Oregon, and northern Colorado, the study says. Warming is unlikely to have played a major role in other regions since winters were rarely cold enough to kill the beetles, according to the study published in the journal Landscape Ecology
. Other factors — including changes in the pine beetles' seasonal development patterns and forestry practices that have influenced pine density and age — were likely more important, the authors say.
24 Mar 2015:
Extreme Forest Fragmentation
Documented in Comprehensive New Study
Fragmentation of the world’s forests has become so severe
that 70 percent of remaining woodlands are now within 1 kilometer of a road or other form of development, according to a new study
. Using the world’s first high-resolution satellite map of tree cover, as well as an analysis of seven long-term fragmentation studies, researchers showed that the ongoing destruction of global forests is decreasing biodiversity by as much as 75 percent in some areas and adversely affecting the ability of forests to store carbon and produce clean water. The study, published in the journal Science Advances
, found that 20 percent of the world’s forests are just 100 meters from a human-created “edge.” Even many parks and protected areas have undergone fragmentation, the study said. The few remaining large, virgin tracts of forest are found in parts of the Amazon, Siberia, Congo
, and Papua New Guinea.
Back from the Brink: Success Stories
Of the U.S. Endangered Species Act
A small minnow known as the Oregon chub
recently became the 29th species to recover after being listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the first fish to ever join those ranks. The Endangered Species Act
, signed into law in 1973, is widely considered one of the most important pieces of U.S. environmental legislation ever enacted. This e360
photo gallery highlights the 21 species
native to the United States, including the bald eagle (above), that have made recoveries strong enough to be removed from the endangered list.
Read more | View gallery of recovered species
Interview: What Lies Behind the
Surge of Deforestation in Amazon
Ecologist Philip Fearnside has lived and worked in the Brazilian Amazon for 30 years and is one of the foremost authorities on
deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest. A professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, Fearnside is now watching with alarm as, after a decade of declining deforestation rates, the pace of cutting in the Amazon is on the rise again. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Fearnside explains the factors behind the resurgence in deforestation and warns that the Amazon will sustain even graver losses if Brazil’s newly re-elected President Dilma Rousseff — who is backed by large landowners and agribusiness interests — doesn’t change course.
Read the interview.
03 Mar 2015:
Photographs of Amazon Forest
Added to Google Street View Collection
Detailed views of the Amazon rainforest, its rivers, and indigenous communities are the latest additions to Google's
"Street View" collection, the company announced
this week. The imagery — captured while boating down 500 kilometers of rivers, walking along 20 kilometers of trails, and ziplining through dense forest — reveals stunning views
of the Amazon from the top of its canopy to the forest floor. The photos also capture daily life in 17 communities of local people who live deep within the rainforest and along the Rio Mariepauá, one of the Amazon River's largest tributaries. The images were collected in partnership with the conservation organization Amazonas Sustainable Foundation, which hopes that sharing in-depth photographs of the area will help promote conservation efforts.
17 Feb 2015:
Demand for Indonesian Timber
Far Outpaces Sustainable Supply, Study Says
More than 30 percent of wood used by Indonesia’s industrial forest sector stems from illegal sources rather than
Deforestation in Aceh, Indonesia, for palm oil.
well-managed logging concessions or legal tree plantations, according to a new report
based on data from industry and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. If Indonesian forestry industries operated at capacity, 41 percent of the wood supply would be illegal, the analysis found, and if companies were to go forward with plans for new mills, the supply would be 59 percent illegal. The source of this illegal wood is unclear, but the report suggests it is likely harvested by clear-cutting natural forests for new oil palm and pulp plantations. Part of the problem, the report says, is that Indonesia's sanctioned forestry plantations — the country's primary source of legal wood — are not currently sustainable because they are producing wood at only half the predicted rate.
12 Feb 2015:
Mange in Yellowstone Wolves
Documented Through Thermal Images
Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey are using thermal video cameras to study how mange is affecting
Thermal image of a wolf with mange on its legs.
wolves in Yellowstone National Park, as shown in this video
. Mange is a highly contagious skin disease caused by mites that burrow into the skin of dogs and wolves, causing infections, hair loss, irritation, and intense itching. The urge to scratch can be so overwhelming that the wolves neglect resting and hunting, researchers say
, leaving them vulnerable to hypothermia, malnutrition, and dehydration, which can eventually lead to death. Thermal imagery allows scientists to document the extent of hair loss and the actual loss of heat associated with different stages of infection. Red patches on a wolf's legs, as shown in this image, indicate rapid heat loss caused by mange.