Roads to ruin: The devastating impacts of the global infrastructure explosion

From an environmental perspective, we may be living in the most frightening times since a giant meteor wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species some 65 million years ago.

New roads everywhere you look...   (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

New roads everywhere you look...  (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

But rather than extraterrestrial devastation, today's tsunami of change is entirely of our own making.  And perhaps no change is of greater importance than the astonishingly rapid explosion of roads and other infrastructure globally. 

As ALERT director Bill Laurance highlights in two hard-hitting editorials this week -- one in the International New York Times and another in New Scientist -- the pace and magnitude of change is truly unprecedented.

For example, in the next few decades, we can expect to see some 25 million kilometers of new paved roads, some 3,700 additional hydroelectric dams, and tens of thousands of new mining and fossil-fuel projects.

In just the next 15 years, investments in new infrastructure projects could approach 70 trillion US dollars -- more than doubling infrastructure investments globally.

Many of these projects will penetrate into the world's last surviving wilderness areas, opening them up like a flayed fish.  Since 2000, for instance, the Congo Basin has been crisscrossed by over 50,000 kilometers of new logging roads.  This has opened up the Basin to poachers armed with rifles and cable snares, who in turn have killed off two-thirds of the global population of forest elephants.

We urge you to read the two brief editorials above, and share them with your friends and colleagues.  There is still time to avoid a global calamity -- but only if we act with a true sense of urgency.

Rate of tropical rainforest destruction leaps by 62 percent

Globally, tropical rainforests are getting hammered even faster than we thought.  This is grim news indeed for the planet's biologically richest real estate.

Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of Earth... forest loss in Cambodia  (photo by William Laurance)

Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of Earth... forest loss in Cambodia (photo by William Laurance)

That's the conclusion of an important new analysis that used detailed Landsat data to assess deforestation rates from 1990 to 2010, in tropical nations that contain about 80% of the world's remaining rainforests.

The study, led by Do-Hyung Kim of the University of Maryland, USA, contrasted average rates of tropical deforestation between 1990 and 2000, and between 2000 and 2010. 

The authors found that the net rate of forest loss (the deforestation rate minus the rate of forest regeneration and afforestation) jumped from 4 million hectares per year in the 1990s to 6.5 million hectares per year in the 2000s -- a 62 percent increase overall.

In the 2000s, Brazil was the fastest forest-destroying nation worldwide, according to the authors.  However, its deforestation rate in Amazonia began falling in the mid-2000s and is now just 25% or so of its former rate.

Southeast Asia is the major tropical region in the worst shape, with less forest than either the New World or African tropics and the highest relative rate of forest loss.

Deforestation rates are relatively modest in Africa but are accelerating in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar -- both vital hotspots for biodiversity.

Notably, the University of Maryland study differs in its conclusions from a major analysis by the FAO (United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization). 

The FAO study concluded that deforestation had fallen in the 2000s, relative to the 1990s, but the University of Maryland researchers say the FAO missed important centers of deforestation that were obvious in their satellite analyses.

Clearly, it's time to redouble our conservation efforts in the tropics -- or we may be remembered as the generation that stood by and watched the rainforests die.

 

 

 

Why biodiversity is declining even as protected areas increase

Why is biodiversity around the world in so much trouble, even though we keep adding new protected areas?  A new paper led by Australian researcher Ro Hill provides a compelling explanation.  Here, Ro summarizes her and her colleagues' key findings:

We’ve expanded the protected area coverage around the globe, to around 15% of the land surface -- with more than a quarter of all countries already exceeding the agreed global target of 17% by 2020.  But biodiversity loss continues apace.

Biodiversity in trouble...

Biodiversity in trouble...

Why?   Our new paper models how this paradox arises in tropical forests, from competition between governance regimes, and makes four important points:

1. The forces that drive forest protection do not necessarily oppose those that drive forest clearance for development. 

The diagram above says it all: we can keep expanding the developed area of the planet AND expanding protected areas as long as there are still some remaining forested habitats.
 
The power of the “develop” and “protect” governance regimes determines the strength of the forces that move the boundaries between areas under protection, areas of remaining forest habitat, and areas under development.

The leaders of the G20 nations recently gave a huge boost to the power of development regimes by promising to invest 60-70 trillion U.S. dollars on new infrastructure projects by the year 2030.  There is no such investment for conservation -- nothing even close!

2.   The power of the “protect” governance regime can actually be lowered as protected areas increase.
 
People may believe that when new protected areas are created, there are more natural areas –- whereas the reality is that every day there are less.  This lowers public concerns about risks from biodiversity loss, decreasing pressure on politicians and weakening the power of the “protect” governance regime.
 
3.  Prioritizing protected area placement by proximity to active agricultural frontiers would make them more effective.

Targets should include both the desired Area under protection AND the absolute limits on Area under development through habitat conversion.

4.  Strengthening the forces that maintain and restore habitat (and oppose its development) is vital to halt biodiversity loss.

This means we must generally favor land-sharing as a conservation strategy rather than land-sparing.  The governance forces that drive land sparing don’t necessarily oppose the governance forces that drive forest clearance for development, so you still get net loss.
 
Hence, strengthening the relative power of land-sharing governance regimes (i.e. those that maintain traditional, sustainable land use, alternative sustainable land use, or restore degraded habitat) is likely, we argue, to have a greater long-term benefit for biodiversity conservation.

Unraveling how governance and power affect biodiversity conservation is a new frontier in conservation science -– but this paper makes an important start and shows where we need to focus our attention.

 

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.

 

Are Australia's mysterious mammal declines spreading?

ALERT has previously reported on the enigmatic and alarming population declines of mammal species across northern Australia.  Now, it appears the declines could be even more widespread than previously suspected.

Bye-bye beautiful bettong?

Bye-bye beautiful bettong?

To date, the declines of smaller and medium-sized mammals, such as quolls, bandicoots, and native rodents, have been mainly documented in monsoonal forests and woodlands across Australia's top end -- such as those at Kakadu National Park, where the declines have been best studied

Additional research -- including interviews of Aboriginal communities in remote areas of northern Australia -- have shown the declines to be widespread in nature, extending over many thousands of kilometers. 

Now, recent research -- which has yet to be published -- suggests that the declines might even extend to northeastern Australia, to the wet tropical region of far north Queensland. 

In this area, live-trapping and camera-trap studies by Sandra Abell-Davis of James Cook University suggest that the tropical bettong, an endangered wallaby-like marsupial, may also be declining sharply.

Abell-Davis studied three areas that had formerly been live-trapped for the bettongs, using identical trapping methods.  She found that, on average, bettong numbers had fallen by more than 80%.

Abell-Davis emphasizes that her findings, while alarming, are still provisional.  She wants to trap more extensively for the bettong and use novel genetic analyses, to see if its numbers have fallen elsewhere in the region.  In fact, she is looking for volunteers to help with this important field work. 

A number of possible drivers have been suggested for northern Australia's mammal declines, with feral cats and altered fire regimes being among the leading suspects

Other suggested possibilities include foreign pathogens, changing rainfall regimes, overgrazing, foxes, and the introduced cane toad, which produces toxins deadly enough to kill virtually anything that eats it.

Whatever is going on, it raises frightening prospects for an Australian continent that has already suffered massive extinctions of its native mammals.