Australia talks the talk but will it walk the walk for conservation?

Australia's environment minister, Greg Hunt, has a tough gig. 

Hope or just politics?  Will Australia help to save imperiled rainforests in the Asia-Pacific?   (photo by William Laurance)

Hope or just politics?  Will Australia help to save imperiled rainforests in the Asia-Pacific?  (photo by William Laurance)

Hunt seems legitimately interested in advancing nature conservation but his boss, the conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, clearly is not.  Abbott's government has the worst environmental record of any Australian government in living memory

That leaves Hunt in a difficult spot.  Few doubt that if he were to push conservation too strongly -- or fail to support Abbott's pro-coal, pro-mining, no-new-parks, anti-renewable-energy policies -- he'd soon be gone.

In such a setting, where domestic policy is so clearly being driven by a growth-first agenda, what is an environment minister to do?  One 'safe' strategy is to focus not on matters at home, but on those abroad.

That is precisely what Hunt did this week in Sydney with his "Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit" -- a forum that proclaimed it will help Australia's tropical neighbors to protect their imperiled forests.

After interviewing Hunt, ALERT director Bill Laurance just wrote this lively critique of the event

It's worth a quick read to see how nature conservation -- and politics -- are playing out in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.

 

Study: Global urban footprint will triple by 2030

If you think cities are big and numerous now, just wait another 15 years.

Our new normal?  (photo by William Laurance)

Our new normal? (photo by William Laurance)

By 2030, some 5 billion people will be living in cities -- many of them mega-cities that each sustain over 10 million residents.  And the total area affected globally by urban sprawl will triple, compared to that in the year 2000.

Those are just a few of the alarming predictions of a recent study by Karen Seto and colleagues, published in the leading journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Seto and her team also estimate that, by 2030, an additional 120 million hectares of land will be engulfed by cities -- an area the size of South Africa. 

Notably, some of the most dramatic urban expansion will occur in certain biodiversity hotspots -- regions with high biodiversity and large concentrations of locally endemic species that have already suffered severe habitat loss.

In fact, the most explosive urban expansion will occur in hotspots that have been relatively undisturbed so far by urban development.  These include the Eastern Afromontane hotspot, the Guinean Forests of West Africa hotspot, and the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka hotspot.

In each of these biodiversity hotspots, the expansion in urban lands from 2000 to 2030 is expected to range from 900 to 1900 percent, according to the study.

Such changes reflect the dramatic growth in human populations still occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, as well as increasing urbanization trends globally.

Other places slated for sharp increases in urban area include eastern China, Turkey, the Himalayas, and parts of Mexico.

The world that Seto and colleagues project is not a distant, dystopian future.  This is our near-term tomorrow. 

This will be our reality if we fail to address unbridled population growth in those regions of the Earth most at risk.

As Seto and colleagues show, our new reality will be a planet increasingly dominated by sprawling cities.  Whether those will be polluted, stressful cities or innovative, well-designed cities remains to be seen.

 

Perils growing for Earth's biodiversity hotspots

Biodiversity hotspots are Earth's most biologically important real estate.  An important new study -- which you can download free here -- sees dark clouds on the horizon for many these crucial ecosystems.

Where the rare things live...

Where the rare things live...

There are 35 biodiversity hotspots across the planet.  They encompass a wide range of different ecosystems but they all have two key features:

First, they're jam-packed with species, especially those that don't occur anywhere else on Earth.  These are known as "locally endemic species" and they're notoriously vulnerable, because they live in just one small area.  For instance, the island of Madagascar has lots of species, such as lemurs, that are completely unique to the island.

Second, hotspots, by definition, have been nuked by land-use change: at least 70% of the original vegetation has disappeared.

The new paper, led by geographer Sean Sloan and including ALERT director Bill Laurance, used a rigorous satellite analysis to estimate how much of the original vegetation survives in an intact condition in each hotspot. 

Unfortunately, most hotspots have much less intact vegetation than previously estimated.  Half now have less than a tenth of their original vegetation -- at which points things start to look seriously dodgy for biodiversity, in part because the original habitat gets severely fragmented and reduced.

An interesting finding is that the hotspots that were formerly in the best shape, in terms of having more of their original vegetation, suffered the worst.  Drier habitats, such as dry forests, open woodlands, and grasslands, fared badly, largely because of expanding agriculture.

These findings highlight an important reality.  For biodiversity, the Earth is far from homogenous, with certain crucial regions overflowing with rare species.  Conserving the last vestiges of these endangered ecosystems is simply vital if we're going to ward off a catastrophic mass-extinction event.

 

Species disappearing "1000 times faster than normal"

Want to know one of the most hotly debated questions in environmental science?  It's this: How fast are species disappearing today?  A new paper in the leading journal Science suggests the answer is -- very fast indeed.

Undiscovered species... this Amazonian jay doesn't even have a scientific name yet (photo by Mario Cohn-Haft)

Undiscovered species... this Amazonian jay doesn't even have a scientific name yet (photo by Mario Cohn-Haft)

The paper, led by ALERT member and Duke University Professor Stuart Pimm with a team of eminent coauthors, makes several key arguments:

- Species extinctions today are occurring roughly 1000 times faster than the 'background' (or natural) rate that prevailed before humans appeared on Earth

- We know where the most imperiled species are located, with particularly big concentrations in the tropical Asia-Pacific region, especially in places like the Philippines, Borneo, and Sumatra

-Other regions with lots of extinction-prone species include the Andes mountains, West Africa, Madagascar, and other scattered pockets of the world

- Millions of species have not yet been discovered (scientifically described or studied) by scientists; for example, huge numbers of plant, insect, fungi, and nematode species are undiscovered, among many others

- Many of the undiscovered species are imperiled because they have small geographic ranges and occur in vulnerable parts of the world -- known as 'biodiversity hotspots' -- that have already lost much of their original habitat

- Protecting the surviving habitats in the biodiversity hotspots is crucial if we are to stave off a dramatic collapse of biodiversity on Earth

For those who care about biodiversity, this paper (which you can download free at the link above) is an authoritative and highly readable summary of what we know, think, and suspect about the future of life on Earth.