This article by Austrian Science Fund (FWF) about Saving the world with Christmas cookies? is serious about all matters of people continuing to ruthlessly exploit land resources around the world and to how to counterbalance that, especially during those especially festive days.
Despite all warnings, people continue to ruthlessly exploit land resources around the world, planting monocultures and setting up large-scale infrastructure. Social ecologist Anke Schaffartzik analyses the political and economic interests that precede these developments and their impact on society. The snapshots of global material and energy flows, but also the power gradient of which they are a symptom, reveal that thoughtful consumption in Austria alone stands little chances against oil palm plantations in Indonesia.
Every year, Austrians produce and buy tons of Christmas cookies. Depending on the individual budget and mind-set, more and more people opt for the product on the shelf that claims to be “palm-oil free.” For today, many people know: Palm oil plantations are being operated on a large scale in countries such as Indonesia, crowding out orangutans living in the tropical rainforests. Anke Schaffartzik, Hertha Firnberg Fellow of the Austrian Science Fund FWF, can well understand that people want to improve the world. Unfortunately, unequal participation in the economy, unequal access to resources and to political co-determination already have an impact on land use even before the consumers can choose a suitable cookie brand in Austria.
In the context of her project at the Institute of Social Ecology in the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna, Schaffartzik analyses worldwide material and energy flows in order to explore the dual nature of inequality: “Inequality as cause and effect of non-sustainable development is easy to observe wherever nature is being exploited to make commercial use of land and resources,” she explains. “Some countries ensure high consumption and economic growth while preserving their resource base or having long since exhausted it. But others are using up more and more land for the export of raw materials or energy sources, thereby making socio-ecologically sustainable development impossible.”
Who decides on land use?
After the first year of her research, Schaffartzik understands that global inequality cannot be quantified exclusively in terms of money. It is informed a great deal by how processes are designed, and the imbalance is already apparent in terms of access to land and decision-making processes. The global data analysis along a time series from 1960 to 2010 suggests to Schaffartzik that the “valorisation” of land is a key process in this growing and deepening use of resources: what counts is the desired economic development, not the needs and voices of the local population. The above-mentioned cultivation of oil palms in Indonesia is one case in point. Before the plantations could be exploited on a large scale, the land first had to be re-zoned accordingly. Palm oil can be used for cooking, as a lubricant and animal feed, for biodiesel or highly processed foods such as Christmas cookies and chocolate. Nowadays, almost the entire volume of crude palm oil is exported from Indonesia, but the processing that generates added value takes place elsewhere.
Cheap and diverse
In the 1980s, palm oil production began to take off in Indonesia, a vast nation of many islands. This not only encroached on the rain forests, but also crowded out other crops and areas used for subsistence farming. “The progressive land grabbing that we are witnessing was initially based on political decisions: There was a wish to see the resources being used in a way that yields money and political control over remote islands,” Anke Schaffartzik notes. Hence, political decisions about land use had to be taken before various big corporations could buy palm oil cheaply as a basis for goods of higher value and before local land was exposed to land grabbing. The “valorisation” of land that previously contributed nothing to the national GDP is the first step in the process. “Countries increasingly look to agricultural goods for economic growth and they consider that to be more important than the food supply for their own population,” explains Anke Schaffartzik. In this context, one can observe that commodities that use up a lot of land for their cultivation or extraction are not generating more money than those that require little land. Today, the local population work either on the plantations or in nickel mining, and meanwhile cooking oil has to be imported.
For her further research, Anke Schaffartzik is cooperating with various institutes in Europe. Together with Julia Steinberger from the University of Lausanne she is working on the relationship between infrastructure, its social status and how infrastructure decisions are being taken. At the Universidad Rovira y Virgili in Spain, she is collaborating on a case study of the construction boom during the Spanish economic crisis, and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona maintains a global atlas of environmental conflicts that provides a tangible picture of the processes leading up to a critical decision.
Approaches to improving the world
Hence, it is not enough, unfortunately, to read the small print and spend a little more money on palm-oil free biscuits. There are always many factors at local level that cannot be influenced downstream by ecologically minded consumers. Once the path to unsustainable development has been taken, there is hardly a way to retrace it. While consumer responsibility is something that people call for, they actually have very little influence.
The focus should therefore be on political processes and decisions that lead to social and ecological inequality and thus promote destructive land use. This is the case not only in Southeast Asia and Latin America, but also on our own doorstep. Where do we see the privatisation of land that was previously subject to shared use? Where is land being re-zoned to build infrastructure? What changes in legislation will affect who gets to decide on land? Who are the beneficiaries? These are important questions. Whose needs are served by the third runway at Vienna Airport, one may wonder, when the actual priority is an expansion of the railway network? Projects such as urban gardening or the sharing economy gain importance if they are understood as a counter-movement to these processes.
Qatar University investing in Harvesting sustainable bioresearch demonstrate that it pays to go down this road regardless of the country’s physical attributes to its contrary. So here is how it is being implemented.
Harvesting sustainable bioresearch
The innovative cultivation of important crops has reduced the impact of food production on Qatar’s environment
It’s essential to Qatar University’s vision and mission to be a catalyst for sustainable development, helping the country to diversify away from its roots in oil and gas. Research into bioresources plays an important role in achieving that goal, whether that is by investigating alternative sources of fuel or ensuring that the population has a secure supply of food in the long term.
The university’s Centre of Sustainable Development aims to ensure that Qatar makes the most of its natural resources in a sustainable way. The centre performs research into food and water security, renewable energy, the governance of natural resources and waste management. Because of water scarcity, limited arable land and high temperatures in Qatar, securing a sustainable food production pipeline is challenging. Consequently, this is a high priority for the centre, and a new plant is currently under construction in the north of Qatar for the production of food, fuel and health products.
One of the most important research initiatives is the Algal Technologies Programme (ATP), led by Dr Hareb Mohammad Al-Jabri and his team. Qatar’s environment offers a unique biodiversity in terms of the presence of microalgae and cyanobacteria – a type of microorganism that thrives on sunlight and CO2 – and ideal year-round growing conditions due to its hot and dry climate. “We want to take advantage of the high temperatures, abundant sunlight and saline water we have here in Qatar,” explains Dr Al-Jabri. “All these conditions make cultivation of traditional crops challenging, but microalgae can thrive under our conditions, and can be a great alternative source of food and feed.”
The ATP covers five key areas of research: culture collection (comparing different algae species); biofuel (converting biomass into carbon neutral fuel); environment and bioremediation (carbon capture and wastewater treatment); health (utilisation of algae in health foods or supplements) and animal feed. Microalgae are being investigated as a source of feed for both poultry and fish (aquaculture), because researchers believe that they have the nutritional potential to provide necessary proteins, lipids and carbohydrates without requiring arable land or fresh water to grow.
In 2011, researchers at the centre began investigating different strains of algae from the local environment – their growth patterns, biochemical composition, the types of conditions in which they grew best. The ATP now houses more than 200 different algae isolates sourced from the Qatar environment in its Culture Collection for Cyanobacteria and Microalgae. Among its discoveries are “super strains” that contain higher levels of protein, fatty acids and carbohydrates, as well as secondary metabolites such as omega-3 fatty acids, beta carotene, and phycobiliproteins, which carry a higher market value. “To grow these, we need lots of sun, seawater, carbon dioxide, and any type of land,” he adds. “We can also recycle certain compounds from industry, such as urea, which is typically regarded as waste and so can’t be sold on, but can be used as a source of nitrogen.” Urea can be supplemented to algae as a fertiliser, and is necessary to support its growth.
“This type of project is good for the diversification of the economy in Qatar because it’s not dependent on oil and gas, and mitigates carbon emissions,” says Dr Al-Jabri. “We help the environment by recycling damaging chemicals, and we’re using seawater so as not to impact the scarce fresh water supply.” The department has previously looked at producing affordable and sustainable biofuels that could be used by the airline industry to reduce its carbon footprint – however this became less feasible economically because of a fall in oil prices. “Our research outcomes were good, so when this does become feasible again, we’ll be ready. But at the moment our focus is on food security for Qatar rather than fuel,” he adds.
Qatar University has been working with students and research departments in universities globally, including Murdoch University in Australia, the University of Liege in Belgium, University of Nantes in France, Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and the University of Texas in Austin. International students can visit the campus in Doha to get to know the desert environment at first hand. “Students are the main wheel of our research, they make it active,” says Dr Al-Jabri, “this is so important for knowledge exchange and to spread our networks and collaborate on different projects.”
The university has also garnered financial and research support from both the private and public sector in Qatar. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry has helped the centre fund a number of start-ups focused on algae-based products, and there are numerous corporate partnerships with companies such as Total and Qatar Airways. Total is working with the university on research into biofuel made from microalgae as well as carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS). Such partnerships are not only financial sponsorships, but also explore intellectual property sharing and will help the corporations involved reach their own sustainability goals.
Another key partnership is with Japanese company Chiyoda, a specialist in agricultural and vegetable production technology. Working with Chiyoda, the university has designed and constructed a designated vegetable factory plant located on campus. The aim is to build a facility where the conditions can be controlled easily with LED lighting so that leafy crops can be produced at any time of the year. This means that the harsh desert environment in Qatar does not have to influence production, so there is continuity and consistency in how the products are grown.
The plan for the ATP is to scale up the production of microalgae and cyanobacteria as part of the university’s forward strategy. This year the cultivation will increase to two hectares of land, and by 2025 it’s hoped that production will cover as much as 100 hectares. “We have a concrete strategy to start producing this on a commercial scale, and we’re moving in the right direction,” says Dr Al-Jabri. Together with a new food production plant in the north of Qatar, this research has the potential to harness sustainable food production for years to come.
Overview: Transforming Land and Sea for a More Sustainable World
Aerial photos often document the destruction of the natural world. But these striking satellite images show how countries are beginning to respond to the global environmental crisis by restoring ecosystems, expanding renewable energy, and building climate resiliency infrastructure.
17 December 2020
As the global population nears 8 billion, the human footprint can be seen in almost every corner of the Earth. Logging roads cut deep into the Amazon rainforest. Plastics swirl in remote parts of the ocean. The world’s largest gold mine is carved out of the mountains of Indonesia.
Satellite and aerial images have captured much of this destruction, often in startling and unsettling images. But a new collection of photos offers a different view: Images of places where efforts are underway to slow or even reverse the damage we have done to the planet — massive wind and solar energy facilities being built on a vast scale; sea walls erected to hold back rising waters; an ambitious tree planting campaign to help stop the advance of desertification in sub-Saharan Africa. When seen from above, these cutting-edge projects are stunning and starkly beautiful.
These early markers of a transformation to a more sustainable world are captured in a new collection of photos published in the book Overview Timelapse: How We Change the Earth. Co-author Benjamin Grant says the scale of the innovation on display is indicative of how quickly society can tackle environmental challenges when it is motivated. “If you get the right momentum and the right belief behind a certain idea, change can happen quickly,” says Grant. “And it’s not necessarily all change for the negative, there can be change for the positive as well.”
The Oosterscheldekering, translated as the Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier, is the largest of a series of 13 dams designed to protect the Netherlands from flooding from the North Sea. It was constructed in response to the widespread damage and loss of life due to the North Sea flood of 1953. The barrier spans approximately 5.6 miles and uses large, sliding gate–type doors that can be closed during surging tides.
A year of progress (2018-2019) in the Great Green Wall initiative, a massive tree-planting initiative that aims to stop the march of desertification in Africa’s Sahel region on the southern edge of the Sahara. In an area impacted by worsening droughts, food scarcity, and climate migration, the project intends to restore 250 million acres of degraded land by 2030 by planting a 5,000-mile tree line, such as this section along the border of Mauritania and Senegal.
Blades for wind turbines grouped together at a manufacturing facility in Little Rock, Arkansas. Individual blades are transported from this facility on top of trucks to wind farms and then assembled on-site. The longest blades seen here are 350 feet long, or 1.3 times the length of a New York City block.
For decades, the waters of Nanri Island in the South China Sea have been cultivated for the growth of kelp and seaweed and the raising of abalone (large sea snails). Since 2015, offshore wind turbines have been operating amid the fishing nets that surround the Chinese island, with minimal effect on aquaculture production.
The Fântânele-Cogealac Wind Farm in Romania is the largest onshore wind farm in Europe. The facility is constructed in the midst of canola fields, demonstrating the type of dual-land use possible with renewable energy. With 240 turbines, the wind farm generates 10 percent of Romania’s renewable energy production.
A before and after look at the installation of solar panels atop the Westmont Distribution Center in San Pedro, California. The 2 million square feet of panels have a bifacial design, meaning they can collect reflected light from the surface of the roof in addition to direct sunlight. This enables the panels to generate up to 45 percent more power than traditional rooftop solar panels and power 5,000 nearby homes.
An aerial view of the $6-billion MOSE system in Venice, Italy, a network of 78 steel gates designed to hold back sea level rise and protect the city from storm surges from the Adriatic Sea. Venice, built on top of a lagoon, already experiences regular flooding as high tides bring water into the city’s streets. The MOSE system, scheduled for completion in 2022, will be capable of stopping tides up to 9.8 feet.
The Sustainable City is a complex in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, built to be the first net-zero-emissions development in the country. The area is home to roughly 2,700 people with housing, offices, retail, health care, and food shopping all on-site. Eleven “biodome” greenhouses generate produce for the complex’s residents, a passive cooling system keeps energy requirements low, and all houses come with solar panels and UV-reflective paint to reduce heat buildup.
Industrialization, rapid growth and usage of certain natural resources supporting new technological development caused and seemed to continue causing global warming that ultimately impacted the planet’s climate to change. In a recent move to counter that, the greening of the earth was incepted and put into implementation with inventions put into action actually to help fight climate change. Recover from climate change seem these days to be approaching its limit as demonstrated by Mauricio Luque in the greening of the earth is approaching its limit.
Vegetation on earth has a key role in mitigating the climate crisis because it reduces the excess CO2 from the atmosphere that we humans emit. Just like when athletes are doped with oxygen, plants also benefit from the large amounts of CO2 that accumulate in the atmosphere. If more CO2 is available, they make more photosynthesis and grow more, which is called the fertilizing effect of CO2. When plants absorb this gas to grow, they remove it from the atmosphere and it is sequestered in the branches, trunk or roots.
An article published in Science, co-directed by the Professor of the Higher Council for Scientific Research at CREAF Josep Peñuelas and Professor Yongguan Zhang of the University of Nanjin, with the participation of CREAF researchers Jordi Sardans and Marcos Fernández, shows that this fertilizing effect of CO2 is decreasing worldwide.
The study, developed by an international team, concludes that the reduction has reached 50% progressively since 1982 due to two key factors: the availability of water and nutrients.
“The formula has no mystery, plants need CO2, water and nutrients to grow. However much the CO2 increases, if the nutrients and water do not increase in parallel, the plants will not be able to take advantage of the increase in this gas,” explains Professor Josep Peñuelas. In fact, three years ago he himself warned in an article in Nature Ecology and Evolution that the fertilizing effect on the soil would not last forever, that plants cannot grow indefinitely because there are other factors that limit them.
If the fertilizing capacity of CO2 in the soil decreases, there will be strong consequences on the carbon cycle and therefore on the climate. Forests have been ‘doped’ with the extra CO2 for decades, sequestering tons of carbon dioxide that allowed them to do more photosynthesis and grow more. In fact, this increased fixation has managed to decrease the accumulated CO2 in the air, but now it is over.
“These unprecedented results indicate that the absorption of carbon by vegetation is beginning to become saturated. This has very important climate implications that must be taken into account in possible strategies and policies to mitigate climate change at the global level. Nature decreases its capacity to sequester carbon and with it increases society’s dependence on future strategies to curb greenhouse gas emissions,” warns Peñuelas.
The study has been carried out with satellite, atmospheric, ecosystem and modelling information. It highlights the use of sensors that use near-infrared and fluorescence and are thus able to measure the growth activity of vegetation.
Less water and nutrients
According to the results, the lack of water and nutrients are the two factors that reduce the ability of CO2 to improve plant growth in the soil. To reach this conclusion, the team based itself on data obtained from hundreds of forests studied over the past forty years. “These data show that the concentrations of essential nutrients in the leaves, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, have also decreased progressively since 1990,” explains researcher Songhan Wang, first author of the article.
The team also found that water availability and temporary changes in water supply played a significant role in this phenomenon. “We have found that plants slow down their growth, not only in times of drought, but also when there are changes in the seasonality of rainfall, which is increasingly happening with climate change,” adds Yongguan Zhang.
In an INews article, Citizens from around the world to form a climate forum to look at the best ways to cut global carbon emissions by Madeleine Cuffelaborates on an idea that in this conjecture increasingly appreciated by an ever-increasing number of people all around the world. Thanks to the Mass Media that is certainly very helpful for kickstarting this mutation and perhaps help unfold all potentialities of a Global Citizens Assembly.
A factory worker from India could work shoulder to shoulder with a bus driver from France to plan how to tackle the climate crisis, organisers say
Citizens from around the world will be recruited at random to form a global ‘Climate Assembly’, charged with presenting world leaders with a plan for tackling climate change next year.
It could mean a bus driver from Britain, a sheep farmer from New Zealand and a factory worker from India all working together on the best way to cut global emissions.
One thousand people will be selected at random to reflect the gender, race, age and economic make-up of the global population, organisers said.
Smaller assemblies at a local and national level will also be held in the run-up to the summit, known as COP26, with organisers aiming for millions of people to participate in the process.
“We will bring many new, probably previously unheard voices into the Global Assembly,” said Claire Mellier, part of the organising team. “Not all of them are going to agree on the situation we are in, or what we should do next. We will however support careful listening between people so that true respect and understanding emerges. And when this happens we know that new possibilities come to light, that transform what we can do together.”
The Global Citizens’ Assembly, which is backed by the UN, will be the first time an in international assembly has been formed. Organisers are hoping its conclusions could spark a breakthrough in international climate talks, which have spent four years bogged down in finalising the ‘rules’ for the Paris climate treaty.
“For too long the international debate on climate has been dominated by powerful minorities,” said Rich Wilson, founder of public participation group Involve. “It’s time for that to end. The Global Citizens’ Assembly is the biggest experiment in global democracy ever attempted. An ambitious endeavor, equivalent to the crisis we face.”
But Mr Wilson says the project needs to raise £100,000 for the project to go ahead, to pay for “logistical and technical challenges”, such as translators for participants, equipment, and even childcare for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to take part.
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