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We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.
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Brazil’s Cerrado savannah reported a six-year deforestation high, after which government scientists have said that deforestation monitoring will cease soon, citing government budget cuts. Wood from the endangered savannah is being illegally deforested to fuel a charcoal boom, which reports say is reliant on forced labour.
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Massive and destructive fires have swept across parts of the US and South America in recent weeks. These fires have been unusual in their timing, speed and destructiveness. While they are fuelled in part by climate change-driven drought, forest management tactics and other human decisions have played a role as well, experts say.
The UK government announced a new taxpayer-funded rewilding scheme for farmers as part of a slew of post-Brexit agricultural reforms. The scheme has been criticised by conservationists, tenant farmers and parliament’s public accounts committee for low targets, lack of detail, access and its “blind optimism” that could lead to food price hikes.
Brazil deforestation and savannah
SERRATED CERRADO: Flanking the Amazon rainforest, Cerrado is the world’s most biodiverse savannah and is integral to South America’s water security. Deforestation of the carbon-critical Cerrado biome hit a six-year high, according to data released by the Brazilian national space research agency (Inpe), Reuters reported. In just 12 months through to July, deforestation and other clearing of native vegetation in the Cerrado rose by as much as 8%, denuding an area more than 10 times the size of New York City, it said.
STATS CUT: Days after Inpe released deforestation data, the agency might have to end monitoring in the region citing budget cuts, a government researcher Claudio Almeida told Reuters. According to Almeida, Inpe would no longer produce annual figures for Cerrado deforestation and while a “minimal team” would continue producing stats on Cerrado forest cover, it would run out of money in six months or less. The agency and the Brazilian government both declined to respond to Reuters. In the past, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro accused Inpe of “lying” when it published satellite data demonstrating a dramatic rise in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
SAVANNAH STEEL: A new investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that Brazil’s charcoal industry, which supplies the country’s steel mills, harvests timber illegally from the endangered Cerrado. The wood fuel sector accounts for nearly 7% of all global emissions. Concurrently, Brazil is the world’s biggest producer of charcoal. An industry association representing 85% of the country’s steel mill production told reporters that the charcoal its members use comes from commercial plantations or sustainable suppliers. It said it allows them to make “carbon-neutral steel”, offsetting steel produced from charcoal with forests planted by the mills. The story also reported the rise in forced labour linked to current high charcoal prices, with 40% more workers rescued at charcoal production sites than in 2020.
FIRESTORM: A fast-moving fire burned more than 6,000 hectares and destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Colorado at the end of December, Reuters reported. It was the “most destructive wildfire” in state history in terms of property damage, and was “fuelled by an extreme set of atmospheric conditions, intensified by climate change and fanned by a violent windstorm”, the Washington Post wrote. The Post further noted that the state’s typical fire season lasts from May until September. The Colorado Sun wrote that the fire “represents a paradigm shift” in thinking about wildfire risk. Colorado State University climatologist Dr Becky Bolinger told the newspaper: “With climate change, these kinds of events will remain an ongoing issue”.
IGNEOUS EMERGENCY: Meanwhile, teleSUR reported that more than 300,000 hectares of South American woodlands have been razed by wildfires since the new year, mostly in Argentinian Patagonia. Argentina’s environmental council has declared an “igneous emergency” in response. teleSUR also noted that while wildfires are “usually provoked by natural factors”, 95% of the recent set of fires were “due to human negligence”. Via Agencia EFE, La Prensa Latina reported that “strong, swirling winds increased the destructiveness of the blazes, which consumed a vast area rich in native flora and fauna”. Areas reforested with fast-growing northern pine trees have been quick to burn in recent fires, National Geographic reported, due to the higher flammability of those trees.
TROUBLING TRENDS: Last year saw severe drought and massive heatwaves across much of the western US. Summing up the 2021 US fire season, the Guardian wrote that while the overall land area burned was smaller than in 2020, “a troubling new trend emerged: fires are getting harder to fight”. The paper noted that fire season is lasting longer into the year, “megablazes” are becoming more and more common and fires are burning “hotter and faster” than they used to. (For more on how climate change is increasing wildfire risk around the world, see Carbon Brief’s explainer on the topic.) The New York Times wrote about researchers studying how forest management methods can create different outcomes for wildfire-burned forests. While climate change plays a critical role in fuelling wildfires, the paper wrote, “many researchers say that more than a century of [forest] management policies…also contribute to the problem”.
REWILDING REWARDS: England’s farmers will be paid by the government to rewild their lands as part of a new scheme under the post-Brexit Sustainable Farming Incentive, the Guardian reported. The estimated £800m subsidy rollout to replace the EU Common Agricultural Policy hopes to “halt the decline in species” and “reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, while increasing woodland, improving water and air quality, said George Eustice, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs.
LAND COVER: The government opened bids for up to 15 pilot projects between 500 to 5,000 hectares, hoping to scale up to nearly 10,000 hectares in the scheme’s first two-year phase rollout. Projects could focus on full rewilding, species recovery or managing wildlife habitats, with a target to improve the status of nearly half of England’s most threatened species, the story said. By 2042, land equal to the size of Lancashire is expected to be covered under “landscape recovery” projects.
WILD OPTIMISM: However, not everyone is a fan. Conservationists questioned whether these subsidies would be “enough to deliver” on the government’s ambitious climate targets. Meanwhile, tenant farmers pointed out that there was “no clear plan” for them to access these schemes, with details lacking nearly six years after the EU referendum. Meanwhile, the UK parliament’s public accounts committee has observed that this payment overhaul could cause “a big increase” in food prices, lead to shortages and was a plan based on “blind optimism” that could leave Britain reliant on imports in the middle of a cost of living crisis, the Daily Telegraph reported.
News and views
FOOD PRICES: Despite a slight dip in December, world food prices hit a 10-year high in 2021, Reuters reported, citing the most recent food price index report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Reuters wrote that the high pricing “reflect[s] harvest setbacks and strong demand over the past year” and that the FAO was “cautious” about whether 2022 would bring lower prices. In the US, food price inflation in 2021 was at its highest level since 2008, the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN) reported. Meats, especially beef and pork, saw the largest increases in price over the last year. A separate piece by FERN noted that more than half of the largest farmers in the US expect the prices of inputs such as fertiliser and farm machinery “to rise by at least 20% over the next 12 months, 10 times the usual annual increase”.
FOREST REHABILITATION: The Ethiopian agriculture ministry, the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) and the Korea International Cooperation Agency launched a joint programme aimed at restoring degraded forests and “protecting forest covered areas from further deforestation activities”, the Ethiopian Herald reported. The programme will span five years and target more than 13,000 hectares of land across three states. In addition to rehabilitating forests, the project “aims to restore the economic potential of these affected areas”, said Dr Gemedo Dale of GGGI. The Herald also noted that the programme will support Ethiopia’s international climate commitments through “strict follow-up and continuous reporting mechanisms”.
OFFSET RUSH: Demand for carbon offsets in voluntary carbon markets has “gone through the roof”, reported the Financial Times. In the last seven months, the price of nature-based offsets – including tree-planting schemes – increased from nearly $4.65 per tonne of carbon to around $14.40, according to S&P Global Platts. Market demand has soared so much that supply has been “squeezed” said Vaughan Lindsay, chief executive of a London-based offset seller. FT noted that this has “tilted the market in favour of sellers, after years of low prices”. However, research indicates that “around 540m offsets that have been generated worldwide have not yet been used”. Securities regulators said “burgeoning investor interest” in carbon markets after COP26 and a slew of net-zero pledges, has only “strengthened the case for global standards.
OVERHAUL OPPOSED: Fishworkers in India are protesting new amendments to India’s coastal regulation zone amendment, reported the New Indian Express, “demand[ing their] immediate withdrawal…to prevent further damage to the ecosystem and displacement of coastal communities”. The amendments, they said, are to facilitate offshore oil and gas projects in territorial waters, which they said “will devastate fishing resources”. The draft notification issued by India’s climate ministry would reduce government scrutiny for projects along India’s coastline while allowing oil and gas firms to skip seeking clearances for exploratory drilling as well as removing sandbars from the shore, the story reported. In the state of Tamil Nadu, UK-based commodity giant Vedanta Ltd has plans to prospect 274 wells, it said. The rollback in rules will lead to a decimation of sandbars that serve as natural defences against increasing extreme weather events, fishworker union representatives said.
SOIL SCHEMES: California’s Healthy Soils Program – one of several such initiatives across the state aimed at incentivising sustainable agriculture – provides advantages to “big, well-resourced operations” at the expense of smaller-scale farmers, critics of the programme told Inside Climate News. The application process is more complex for farmers growing diverse crops than for large-scale, monoculture farms. And “many advocates familiar with the soil health programme said it needs to better prioritise” disadvantaged farmers, Inside Climate News wrote. Funding for the programme has increased significantly for the coming year, alleviating some farmers’ concerns about missing out on financial support. But “the administrative process remains a hurdle for some small scale, less tech-savvy farmers”, one small farms advisor said.
- ‘An act of rebellion’: The young farmers revolutionising Puerto Rico’s agriculture – Nina Lakhani, The Guardian
- A shellfish company gets into the weeds – Sarah Sax, High Country News
- Beyond greenwashing: How chain restaurants could actually address their climate pollution – Joseph Winters, Grist
- A race for lithium is sparking fears of water shortages in northern Argentina – Natalie Alcoba, Climate Home News
The extent of soil loss across the US corn belt
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
A new study found that the carbon-rich topsoil has been stripped away across roughly one-third of the “corn belt”, a region of the midwestern US that produces 75% of the country’s maize. Researchers used satellite data to map the extent of topsoil loss over sample sites, then paired the results with topographic data to scale up predictions across the entire region. They found that 35% of the area has lost its topsoil, leading to a 6% decline in crop yields and a loss of 1.4bn tonnes of soil carbon. The authors concluded that prior, survey-based studies “have significantly underestimated” soil loss in the region.
A new study found marked sub-regional disparities in factors that influence compliance by forest governance institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. Researchers found that economic, ecological and socio-cultural factors play a greater role in East African forest institutions, while economic, demographic and political factors determine compliance in central Africa. Researchers reviewed more than three decades of scientific literature on institutions in forest use and management, including 374 case studies. Based on this, they conclude that conceptualisation of forest-linked institutions is more skewed towards institutions as processes, than structures and that “future research should prioritise” mixed-methods research that captures sub-regional specificities.
Modelling potential range expansion of an underutilised food security crop in sub-Saharan Africa
Environmental Research Letters
Cultivating enset – a banana-like crop grown in southwestern Ethiopia – over a larger range could help alleviate food insecurity and build climate resilience in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a new study. Using agricultural surveys and a suite of different types of models, scientists projected enset’s potential range over the next four decades. They found that while the range over which the crop is currently cultivated will contract by nearly 11% by 2070, expanding enset agriculture within Ethiopia to “all areas of suitability” would more than double its range. The authors wrote that expanding cultivation of such “underutilised” crops can “support the diversification and resilience of global agrisystems under climate change”.
In the diary
- 19 January: Monitoring marine and coastal biodiversity in the draft post-2020 global biodiversity framework
- 19-21 January: 42nd session of the European Commission on Agriculture
- 25-27 January: Future Food Systems Summit 2022