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18 May 2022 16:49

Cropped, 18 May 2022: Great Barrier Reef bleaching unmasked; Food crisis worsens; World begins land negotiations

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NatureCropped, 18 May 2022: Great Barrier Reef bleaching unmasked; Food crisis worsens; World begins land negotiations

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s Cropped. 
We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.

This is an online version of Carbon Brief’s fortnightly Cropped email newsletter. Subscribe for free here.


A mass bleaching event at the Great Barrier Reef in 2022 affected 91% of corals, according to an official report that commentators say was released quietly in the run-up to Australia’s general election.

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The global hunger crisis is “exploding”, a UN official warned as Russia’s war in Ukraine and a wheat export ban in India sent shockwaves through food markets.

More than 1.4 billion people were affected by drought from 2000 to 2019, said a new report released at the UN’s “desertification” COP that began on 9 May. It warned that 129 countries could see a marked increase in drought exposure mainly due to climate change alone in the next few decades.

Key developments

Great Barrier Reef bleaching unmasked

‘HEARTBREAKING’: A mass bleaching event at the Great Barrier Reef this year affected 91% of corals, according to an official report that was eventually published after delays in the run-up to Australia’s general election. As Carbon Brief has previously reported, mass coral bleaching events at the Great Barrier Reef are a modern-day phenomenon driven by human-caused climate change, with the first event taking place in 1998. Mass bleaching occurs when unusually high sea temperatures cause corals to release the colourful algae that lives inside their tissue, leaving them a ghostly white. This algae acts as the primary source of food and, without it, corals slowly starve. Since 1998, there have been six mass bleaching events at the Great Barrier Reef, including four in the last seven years, Sky News reported. The broadcaster quoted Dr Simon Bradshaw, a researcher at Australia’s Climate Council, who described the results as “heartbreaking” and “deeply troubling”. Writing on Twitter, veteran coral reef scientist Prof Terry Hughes said: “Compared to earlier mass bleaching events, 2022 was more severe than 1998 – then the hottest year on record, and 2002.” The 2022 event was the first to happen in a La Niña year, when sea temperatures in Australia tend to be cooler than average, the Guardian reported.

‘POLITICAL INTERFERENCE’: Several Australian publications reported on allegations of “political interference” in the publishing of the report, which comes in the run-up to a general election where climate change has emerged as a key voter issue. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the reef survey was “quietly released after the government department and a Commonwealth agency were accused of covering up the findings to shield the Coalition from criticism during the federal election campaign”. According to the newspaper, “the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had advised the reef body and another science agency that helped with the survey…that it would be preferable to withhold the report during the ‘caretaker conventions’ that apply during an election period”. These “caretaker conventions” advise governments to “avoid major policy decisions, significant appointments, and major contracts and undertakings” in election periods, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, which added that experts said these rules should not apply to the reef survey.

VOTE FOR THE REEF: In an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, released shortly after the reef survey, former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres warned that, without immediate climate action, “Australia is sleep-walking towards devastating bushfires, floods and coral bleaching events that will become more frequent and dangerous than those over the last two years”. She continued: “There’s no gentle way to say this. Australia’s climate ambition has for years been well at the back of the pack globally…Australians are among the biggest per-capita emitters in the world. Add to that Australia’s position as one of the world’s biggest exporters of high-polluting coal and gas, and you have a picture of a nature-blessed country that has not yet embraced its climate leadership potential.” Her words came as Australians began using the Twitter hashtag “#VotefortheReef”. (Ahead of the general election on 21 May, Carbon Brief has produced an interactive grid analysing the climate pledges made by all of the main parties.)

Global food crisis worsens

‘EXPLODING’: The global hunger crisis is “exploding” amid record food prices, set to be worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to Arif Husain, the chief economist at the UN World Food Programme, Bloomberg reported. According to the publication, an index of world food prices soared to a record in 2021. It reported: “Almost 193 million people across 53 countries or territories suffered acute food insecurity in 2021, meaning their lack of meals posed an immediate threat to their lives or livelihoods.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is now worsening the crisis by disrupting “harvests and exports from one of the world’s top grain and vegetable-oil suppliers”, Bloomberg added. According to the publication, Husain told a press briefing on Wednesday: “The world is exploding with food insecurity.”

WHEAT CRISIS: When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine first sparked fears of further food instability earlier this year, India was keen to offer its support to other countries, CNN reported. “We already have enough food for our people, but our farmers seem to have made arrangements to feed the world,” India’s prime minister Narendra Modi said in April. “We are ready to send the relief from tomorrow itself.” However, CNN reported, “now, those lofty goals have been abandoned and wheat exports banned as life-threatening heatwaves in South Asia stunt output and push local prices to record highs”. The announcement of an export ban in India – the second biggest wheat producer after China – immediately caused wheat prices to spike, CNN added. (Carbon Brief has produced an in-depth summary of how the media has covered India’s extreme heatwave.)

TROUBLE IN EUROPE: The global food crisis is causing tension in all world regions, including Europe, publications reported this week. EurActiv reported that, in light of the Ukraine crisis, Germany is lobbying the European Commission to postpone a new regulation on crop rotation to allow farmers to grow more wheat. In addition, a separate EurActiv story reported that the European Union plans to warn Turkey, the third-largest importer of wheat in the world, that it must do more to comply with its rules if it hopes to secure more agricultural trade with Europe. In addition, Agence France-Presse reported that France’s food production is suffering in an early drought, with 15 administrative départements having to restrict water use.

Desertification and land COP

DESERT COP: The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is the only legally binding framework that addresses drought and is focused on the rehabilitation, conservation and sustainable management of land and water resources. Over 9-21 May, the Ivory Coast is hosting the 15th session of the Conference of Parties (COP15) in its capital Abidjan, attended by more than 2,000 participants, including a dozen heads of state and government. States are expected to address key findings from a milestone report on land released before the conference. Drought has been one of the key themes at UNCCD COP15, with UNCCD executive secretary Ibrahim Thiaw warning that humanity was “at a crossroads” and that it needed to “steer toward the solutions rather than believing that marginal change can heal systemic failure”. 

DRY DAYS AHOY: A new UNCCD drought report found that the number and duration of droughts have risen 29% globally since the year 2000. It added that, while droughts count for only 15% of natural disasters, they have taken the largest human toll (approximately 650,000 deaths over 1970-2019). By 2050, the report estimates that 4.8-5.7 billion people will live in areas that are water-scarce for at least one month each year, up from 3.6 billion today. Drought could also force 216 million people to migrate by 2050, in combination with factors such as declining crop productivity and water scarcity. The report estimated that severe droughts have reduced India’s gross domestic product by 2-5%. 

FORESTS AND FAULT LINES: Protecting and restoring forests may be a key to combating desertification, but “funding the fight remains a problem”, Deutsche Welle reported.The outlet pointed out that the UNCCD-led Great Green Wall of Africa project – “which aims to restore a green belt across the Sahel to stop the southward spread of the Sahara” – is still billions of dollars short of its target set 15 years ago. At the leaders’ summit, Ivory Coast’s president Alassane Ouattara announced the Abidjan Legacy Programme to “boost long-term sustainability in value chains in the country while protecting and restoring forests” to increase climate resilience, Reuters reported, which would require $1.5bn over the next five years and use technologies such as tree-planting drones and drought-resistant plant varieties to repair degraded land. According to the DW story, civil society was “not happy about” the election of a former Ivory Coast minister of water and forests to the COP15 presidency, given that his ministry was being audited after reports of timber trafficking. 

News and views

INDIGENOUS INCLUSION: Chile’s new draft constitution will for the first time recognise the right of Indigenous peoples and nations to their lands, territories, and resources, the South Atlantic News Agency MercoPress reported. The new provision paves the way for “the restitution, reparation and regularisation of lands to Indigenous peoples”, according to the news service, “in addition to granting special protection to the Indigenous ownership of land”. It comes as Indigenous lawmakers in Ecuador introduced a new land bill to try to guarantee their communities full ownership of their territories, the Latin American television service teleSUR reported.

CANARIES IN COALMINE: A global review of 11,000 bird species found that half are in decline, while just 6% are increasing, the Guardian reported. Patricia Zurita, CEO of Birdlife International, a charity whose data underpinned the new scientific study, told the Guardian: “Birds truly are the canary in the coal mine as indicators for the health of our planet, given their sensitivity to ecosystem changes, their ubiquity around the planet, and how well studied they are. [We] need to listen and act upon what birds are telling us, as they disappear ever faster.”

SALMON VS SEALS: Huon Aquaculture – owned by Brazilian meat giant JBS – accounted for nearly three-quarters of all seals killed on Tasmanian salmon farms, Australian outlet the Tasmanian Inquirer reported. According to government data, Huon Aquaculture used more than 8,000 underwater explosives (called “seal crackers”) to scare away seals in 15 months. While rival firms have cut back their explosive usage, Huon “went in the opposite direction, increasing its use by more than 10%”, and did not respond directly to reporters’ queries as to why. JBS bought Huon Aquaculture for $425m in November 2021 and pledged that under its ownership, Huon would “uphold the highest standards of fish health and sustainable farming practices”, the story said.

BURNING FORESTS: Wildfires raged across the world this past fortnight. In New Mexico, the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon fire – “larger than the city of Chicago” – raced north through “land that has deep religious significance to Indo-Hispano villages established two centuries ago”, said a Reuters story. Persistent drought conditions in California and across the western United States have left vegetation so dry that it does not take much for the fuels to ignite, an Orange County fire chief told the Los Angeles Times. The Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk declared a state of emergency as “ferocious” fires claimed the lives of at least 10 people, Al Jazeera reported. “Violent winds” that brought down trees and power lines are reported to have sparked the fires, as well as fanning the flames, hampering rescue and containment efforts. The Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in India lost 3,000 hectares to forest fires in March-April “ahead of peak fire season”, the Times of India reported.

PRIZED PREDICTIONS: Climate impact specialist and NASA research scientist Dr Cynthia Rosenzweig won the 2022 World Food Prize for her pioneering work and innovative modelling of how global food production is impacted by and must adapt to climate change, the Guardian reported. “We cannot solve climate change unless we address the issues of the greenhouse gas emissions from the food system, and we cannot provide food security for all unless we work really hard to develop resilient systems,” Rosenzweig told the Associated Press at the ceremony. The $250k prize was instituted in​​ 1986 to recognise people who have improved food quality and access to nutrition across the world.

Extra reading

New science

Tropical tree mortality has increased with rising atmospheric water stress

Tree deaths in the Australian tropics have doubled in the past 35 years, a research paper published in Nature has found – “indicating a potential halving in life expectancy and carbon residence time”. The researchers examined trees in 24 forest sites across the Australian tropics. They found the loss of trees was not made up for by gains from new growth. The researchers also found that “a long-term increase” in atmospheric water stress “was evident across the region” studied – suggesting that such stress, “driven by global warming”, could be the “primary cause of tree mortality in moist tropical forests”.

Integrating degrowth and efficiency perspectives enables an emission-neutral food system by 2100
Nature Food

“Reducing and redistributing income alone” would lead to “limited” cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture and land-use change, according to a new study, but integrating “degrowth and efficiency perspectives” could produce a “sustainable transformation”. The authors observed that a needs-based “structural, qualitative food system transformation” could help achieve a net GHG-neutral food system economy by 2100, while improving nutrition. Researchers analysed degrowth scenarios using an open-source framework for modelling the global land system, and simulated scenarios based on what degrowth and efficiency for agriculture and food systems could look like. They found that in order to reduce land-use emissions, “both a change of dietary preferences and a change of economic incentives by emission pricing are crucial”.

How can carbon labels and climate-friendly default options on restaurant menus contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions associated with dining?
PLOS Climate

A new study found that restaurant menu design could have a “considerable effect on the carbon footprint of dining”. Researchers conducted an online simulation experiment in which 265 participants were given menus of nine different restaurants to choose one dish from. In some menus, the most climate-friendly meal option was set as the default option, while in others, mains were presented with side dishes that had the highest emissions or with carbon labels for each dish. Subjects chose the most climate-friendly option when carbon labels were present and when shown low-emission meals as a default, the study found.

In the diary

Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione, Aruna Chandrasekhar and Daisy Dunne.

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