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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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Many parts of the northern hemisphere faced devastating heatwaves in recent days, from North America to western Europe and China. The excessive heat sparked serious impacts for food production, land and nature.
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Ukraine and Russia came to a landmark agreement for the safe passage of wheat exports, as the world edged towards a global grain crisis. However, just hours after the deal, Russia hit Odesa, Ukraine’s main seaport, in a missile strike.
The first-ever African summit on protected areas was held in Kigali, Rwanda, where delegates discussed how such sites could help countries to conserve nature and advance sustainable development. Meanwhile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo announced that it would be auctioning off rights to oil-and-gas drilling in the Congo Basin.
Northern hemisphere swelters
40C IN UK: The UK faced its hottest day on record on 19 July, when temperatures reached 40.3C in Coningsby, a village in Lincolnshire, northern England. The new provisional temperature record came as extreme heat engulfed many parts of the UK from 18-19 July, with Scotland and Wales also registering new national heat records, as Carbon Brief reported in an in-depth summary of the event. The heatwave fanned the flames of at least four major fires in London, the Metro reported – causing London firefighters to have their busiest day since the second world war, according to the Guardian. The hot conditions disrupted farmers harvesting crops such as wheat, barley and oilseed rape, BBC News reported. And the heat also caused major problems for British wildlife – with reports of swifts falling out of the sky in London and fires across Norfolk’s Wild Ken Hill reserve, where turtle doves, grasshopper warblers and reed warblers nest, according to the Guardian.
EUROPE BURNS: As the UK entered uncharted territory, parts of mainland Europe, such as Portugal, France and Spain, battled intense wildfires. The Observer reported that, over the weekend of 16-17 July, more than 12,000 people were evacuated from the paths of fires in southern France, while firefighters in Spain were “battling a series of fires after days of unusually high temperatures which reached up to 45.7C”. Reuters reported that the heat killed 659 people in Portugal and 360 people in Spain in the second week of July. By 25 July, the sweltering conditions reached Greece, fanning devastating wildfires in areas including a national park that is home to protected species, Reuters said. In addition to battling extreme heat and wildfires, many parts of Europe are also continuing to suffer from drought. The Washington Post reported on how the ongoing hot and dry conditions are decimating rice crops in Italy’s “risotto heartland”.
CHINA MELTS: Further east, the heat was also on in China. Severe heat warnings and forecasts of 40C were issued for almost 70 Chinese cities for 25 July, CNN reported. Another 393 Chinese cities and counties were forecast to face 35C heat on the same day, the publication added. China has faced above-normal temperatures since June, Reuters reported. “In agricultural regions, drought has been a concern,” Reuters reported, adding that cotton crops in the northwestern Xinjiang region were particularly at risk. A second Reuters story reported that the heat had sparked accelerated glacier melt in Xinjiang, posing a risk to “risks to rivers and dams”.
US FRIES: On the other side of the northern hemisphere, many parts of the US also faced extreme temperatures. The New York Times reported that the north-eastern US was particularly affected, “with a record-breaking five straight days of triple-digit temperatures [above 37.8C] in Newark and blistering heat in Boston; Providence, Rhode Island; and Manchester, New Hampshire” in mid July. It came as BBC News reported that a state of emergency had been declared in California as “the largest active wildfire in the US rapidly spread near Yosemite National Park”. From 22-24 July, the Oak Fire forced 6,000 people to evacuate, BBC News said. Newsweek reported that US farmers were gearing up for a “crisis” as the heatwave “strained their crops and animals just in time for the global grain shortage”.
Russia-Ukraine grain exports deal
‘A BEACON OF HOPE’: On 22 July, Ukraine and Russia signed “mirror” deals lasting for 120 days that will allow Kyiv to resume exports of grain through the Black Sea, currently trapped in Ukraine by the war, reported BBC News. Ukrainian media outlet Ukrainska Pravda clarified that the document – entitled, “Initiative on the safe transportation of grain and foodstuffs from Ukrainian sea ports” – was not signed directly with Russia, but through representatives of Turkey and the UN. Associated Press noted that “the UN plan will enable Ukraine to export 22m tonnes of grain and other agricultural goods that have been stuck in Black Sea ports due to Russia’s invasion”. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres called it “a beacon of hope” for millions of hungry people who have faced huge increases in the price of food amid an ongoing global crisis. As Ukrainian infrastructure minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said, three ports were to be unblocked simultaneously – Odesa, Chornomorsk and Pivdennyi, which in 2021 collectively handled 70% of Ukraine’s trade turnover.
SHELLED SEAPORT: However, just 12 hours after Moscow signed a deal to allow monitored grain exports from Ukraine’s southern ports, Russia targeted Ukraine’s main port of Odesa – where grain shipments take place – in a missle strike, reported the Guardian. The rockets did not hit the grain storage, said Babel. An economic adviser to the Ukrainian president said that “Russia’s strike on the port of Odesa showed it [export] will definitely not be that easy”, according to Reuters. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky described the missile attack on Odesa as “cynical”, which “turned out to be an attack on the political positions of Russia itself”. Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that the strike on the port of Odesa should not affect the start of grain shipment, reported Russian Interfax.
FUTURE OF SHIPMENTS: During a recent press briefing, answering the claim that Russia has already violated the clause of the agreement on “non-attack on port facilities”, infrastructure minister Kubrakov said: “We planned to navigate the Black Sea, and we will continue to do so, because it is also important to us, as it is to the entire civilised world…If something happens in the Black Sea, then, of course, this program will be stopped.” Yurii Vasko, Ukraine’s deputy minister of infrastructure, added that, “during this week, we hope to make the first shipment” and “within two weeks, we will be technically ready to export from all three ports’ port terminals”.
Africa biodiversity at risk
CONSERVATION CONGRESS: Nearly 3,000 delegates from across Africa convened in Kigali, Rwanda, for the six-day Africa Protected Areas Congress (APAC). APAC was hosted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and was the first-ever continent-wide summit focused on how protected areas can aid countries in “conserving nature, promoting sustainable development and safeguarding the continent’s wildlife”, the Guardian wrote. It added that one of the issues to be discussed at APAC was “the practicality of expanding protected areas to 30% of the planet by 2030” – one of the key issues at stake during last month’s biodiversity negotiations in Nairobi.
MIND THE (FINANCING) GAP: The New Times, a Rwandan daily, reported that the summit was attended by “former African heads of state, ministers from different countries, heads of institutions, civil society, among others”. The paper noted that although there are more than 1,200 national parks and 8,600 protected areas across the continent, “they are not well managed due to financing gaps”. A separate piece in the New Times reported that IUCN president Rozan Al Mubarak “reiterated that protected areas need to be effectively, equitably managed by and for indigenous communities”. Rwandan prime minister Edouard Ngirente called for “strong public-private partnerships in sustainably protecting, restoring, and managing Africa’s rich biodiversity”, the New Times added.
‘URGENT INCREASE’: During the APAC summit, world leaders also met at the Africa Nature Finance Forum, where experts “called for an urgent increase in financing to protect the world’s biodiversity”, Top Africa News wrote. One discussion item at the forum was an African proposal “that all nations commit 1% of GDP to address the biodiversity finance gap and protect our planet’s future”, which would generate about $850bn for biodiversity, the site reported. The summit marked the launch of the Pan-African Conservation Trust (A-Pact), “to address the financing gap in Africa through an independent financing mechanism”, Kenyan newspaper the Standard wrote. The paper noted that “the vision set out in A-Pact requires at least $200bn to finance all of Africa’s protected and conserved areas”.
‘GIANT LEAP BACKWARD’: Meanwhile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo – one of the most biodiversity-rich countries in the world and home to vast carbon stocks – has pulled an “about-face in allowing new oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas”, the New York Times wrote, calling it “a giant leap backward for the climate”. The paper reported that the country will auction off blocks for oil and gas drilling, with the intention of “help[ing] the struggling nation finance programs to reduce poverty and generate badly needed economic growth”. It quoted the country’s lead climate negotiator, Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, who said: “Our priority is not to save the planet.” In a column in the New York Times, Prof Simon Lewis called on the international community to “work with Congo to make it lucrative to keep rainforests standing”.
News and views
FOREST AFLAME: A Dutch carbon-offset company, Land Life, accidentally sparked a 14,000 hectare (ha) forest fire in the Aragon region of Spain, leading to the evacuation of around 2,000 people, Vice reported. The outlet noted that while the blaze “has not likely wiped out the lion’s share of Land Life’s work”, it is the second such fire the company has started this summer. (In June, 20ha of forest were wiped out). According to the outlet, the inferno began when a “contractor planting trees accidentally set off sparks that ignited nearby plant life”. In a statement, Land Life said that they were “devastated” by the estimates of the damage.
FALLOW THE LEADER: “Virtually all” EU member states have called on the governing body to ease the environmental requirements put in place by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), Czech agriculture minister Zdeněk Nekula said following an agriculture ministers’ meeting earlier this month. EurActiv reported that “this would involve extending the temporary exemptions for rules on crop rotation and the use of fallow land”. Farmers’ associations argue that exemptions are needed to increase food production to make up for falling exports from Russia and Ukraine. But others say that “in the context of the climate crisis, the EU cannot afford to sacrifice the environment on the altar of food security”, EurActiv wrote.
SOY SOURCE: Six major commodities traders “announced their intention” to help indirect their suppliers “source soy sustainably in Brazil’s Cerrado landscape”, SWI swissinfo.ch reported. The site noted that the “unique landscape” of the Cerrado hosts nearly 5,000 species of plants and vertebrates not found elsewhere and “accounts for half of all soy grown in Brazil”. The six companies have committed to providing “resources and finances to set up a monitoring and traceability system” to help indirect suppliers avoid deforestation-linked soy. The “initiative is unlikely” to expand beyond the Cerrado, the outlet wrote, but added that “some traders are using the lessons learned from the Cerrado to improve the traceability of their individual supply chains”.
FRESH DISCOVERY: Researchers exploring the Amazon River Delta have found freshwater mangroves next to wetlands, a phenomenon that had never before been documented. According to Mongabay’s coverage, the existence of this vegetation type shows “strong evidence” of the area’s adaptability to river flows. The article adds that though mangroves form substantial carbon sinks that provide habitats for flora and fauna, they are seldom protected by Brazilian or international law and are threatened by “shrimp farming, pollution from agricultural runoff, erosion, development, and climate change”. The Ecologist reported that further investigations into these unique ecosystems will find ways to “support solutions to ensure their protection”.
WILDLIFE OF OZ: According to Australia’s 2021 State of the Environment Report, released on 19 July, the country is experiencing “catastrophic losses” of wildlife and habitats, the Sydney Morning Herald said. Some 53 mammals, birds and frogs have been classed as critically endangered since the report’s last edition in 2016, with the report attributing this to climate change, habitat loss and resource extraction activities such as land clearing. Biodiversity experts are urging federal reforms amidst climbing government debt, with the Herald quoting Australian ecologist Prof John Woinarski: “If we don’t take greater action now, [the natural world] will crumble rapidly before our eyes.” The environment has remained a political priority since the country’s May elections, and Al Jazeera reported that “survey after survey has shown that the Australian public wants more action on climate change”.
WE’LL BE DAMMED: The return of two species to the UK’s woodlands and rivers was covered by the Guardian and BBC News, reporting respectively on the release of wild bison in Kent and legal protection for the recently reintroduced Eurasian beaver. The bison will facilitate greater biodiversity and combat climate change, the former said, quoting Evan Bowen-Jones, CEO at Kent Wildlife Trust: “We need to revolutionise the way we restore natural landscapes, relying less on human intervention and more on natural engineers like bison, boar and beaver.” The push to safeguard beavers – which BBC News said “can protect land from flooding and create habitats for other native species” – has been opposed by the National Farmers’ Union, who expressed “concern” about the potential damage they could do to farmland.
- How Indigenous sea gardens produced massive amounts of food for millennia– Ashley Braun, Hakai Magazine
- The seas are rising on Pacific islands nations – but so is their powerful resistance – Ellen Fanning, The Guardian
- Trees are overrated – Julia Rosen, The Atlantic
- Restoring Mexico’s ‘Garden of Eden’ is a process of deep regeneration – Ocean Malandra, Mongabay
New research measuring nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions outside of the growing season in the north central region of the US found that these emissions are “6 to 16%” higher than the national greenhouse gas inventory estimates. Using atmospheric inversions and “newly implemented” bottom-up models, the authors showed that emission accounting in “cold climate regions” are “very likely underestimated in most national reporting frameworks”. The study encouraged greater accuracy of emission estimation in order to mitigate “additional risks into meeting long-term climate goals”.
Sugar taxation for climate and sustainability goals
A new paper studying the impact of sugar taxation on environmental sustainability found that emissions could fall by 21-50m tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year if the EU reduced its sugar consumption following health guidelines – and excess Brazilian sugar cane crops were redirected to ethanol. These reductions would be “around four times higher” than an alternative strategy of planting trees over EU sugar beet cropland and double those from producing sugar beet ethanol in the EU, the authors said. The study suggested that sugar taxation would not only target “environmental impacts of biofuels”, but would encourage behavioural change with “health and economic benefits”.
New research exploring animal pollination’s effects on crop yield “stability” – how stable an agricultural system’s output is year-on-year – showed that these pollinators increased stability by an average of “32% per unit of yield”. In a meta-analysis, the authors compared animal-pollinated and wind- or self-pollinated apple, oilseed rape and faba bean plants. They found that increases in yield stability are greatest when the greatest increases in yield itself occurs. The study suggested that these results justify further policies to “protect pollinators”.
In the diary
- 1-5 August: 27th session of the assembly of the International Seabed Authority
- 15-26 August: 5th session of the Intergovernmental Conference on marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction
- 15 August: Empowering small-scale farmers in Brazil: Identifying effective knowledge exchange tools, climate impacts and information needs for cocoa farmers
Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione, Aruna Chandrasekhar and Daisy Dunne. Anastasiia Zagoruichyk and Yaning Wu also contributed to this issue. Please send tips and feedback to [email protected]