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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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A plan from the UK’s new government to roll back environmental regulations has sparked a fierce backlash, while the country’s biggest power station Drax has also come under fire for sourcing wood from “environmentally important” forests in Canada.
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Hurricane Ian caused death and destruction across the southeastern US and Cuba, devastating America’s orange crop and threatening cigar production on the Caribbean island.
More than 1,700 land and environmental defenders were killed over the past decade, analysis found. Meanwhile, an investigation alleged that Nestlé is linked to Brazilian beef reared on Amazonian land seized from Indigenous people.
UK takes aim at nature regulations
‘ATTACK ON NATURE’: A plan to rollback environmental measures in place to protect species and habitats in the UK has been met with fierce backlash from the country’s leading environmental groups, the Guardian reported. In late September, the UK’s new government fronted by prime minister Liz Truss and chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng set out a “mini-budget” aimed at “releasing the huge potential in the British economy”. This included a proposal to create “investment zones” where “green rules on nature protection would in effect be suspended”, according to the Guardian. The government also suggested it was “reviewing” plans for an environmental land management scheme, which had been designed to pay farmers to protect nature and boost carbon stores post-Brexit, BBC News reported. Shortly after the announcements, one of the UK’s largest wildlife charities, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), posted a strongly-worded Twitter thread describing the proposals as an “attack on nature”, adding: “We are angry and we are mobilising against these proposed plans.” Many other large nature charities followed suit, including the Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and CPRE, the countryside charity. (The National Trust has more than 5m members, while the RSPB has more than 1m.)
‘RABBIT IN HEADLIGHTS’: The furore prompted ministers to hold “an emergency meeting”, according to the Times. “It seems to be genuine chaos. It wasn’t scheduled, it’s an emergency,” an insider told the newspaper. Government sources told the Times that the “chaos” is being blamed on “a lack of knowledge among politicians moved to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs under Truss”. The Times reported: “In an introductory meeting with Defra officials, one minister said they had always loved gardening, and spent half an hour talking about their favourite Beatrix Potter characters. ‘There was no sense that they have any understanding at all of what it is they’re messing with,’ a source said.” Several senior Conservative figures have also spoken out publicly against the proposals. In the Times, former Conservative leader William Hague described the “attack on nature” as “a mistake Tories can avoid”. Speaking to the Guardian, former environment minister George Eustice urged the new government not to abandon the plans for a post-Brexit environmental land management scheme.
DRAX UNDER FIRE: As the fallout continues, pressure is also mounting on Drax, the firm behind the country’s largest power plant in North Yorkshire. Ear this week, BBC Panorama broadcast an investigation detailing how Drax is sourcing wood to burn in its biomass station – considered a source of renewable power in the UK – from “environmentally-important” forests in Canada. BBC News reported: “Panorama analysed satellite images, traced logging licences and used drone filming to prove its findings. Reporter Joe Crowley also followed a truck from a Drax mill to verify it was picking up whole logs from an area of precious forest. Ecologist Michelle Connolly told Panorama the company was destroying forests that had taken thousands of years to develop.” In response to the investigation, Drax has released a statement denying the core findings and describing the sources quoted by Panorama as “inaccurate”. On Twitter, DeSmog journalist Phoebe Cooke reported that Drax CEO Will Gardiner pulled out of a panel event at the Conservative Party conference held on the same day that the investigation was released. Bloomberg reported that Drax shares plummeted in the wake of the investigation. It comes as Unearthed reported that Drax has been accused of “environmental racism” after being found to have driven air pollution in majority-Black communities living close to its wood-pellet factories in the US.
Ian unleashes destruction
US PUMMELLED: Hurricane Ian, tied as the fifth-strongest storm to ever hit the US, caused devastation as it moved from Cuba over the Gulf of Mexico to Florida and the Carolina states in recent days, the Washington Post reported. According to the Post, Ian is the 37th major hurricane to have ever struck the state of Florida, and the 15th to be rated a category 4 or higher. The death toll from the storm is still being counted, but has already topped 100 in Florida, Reuters reported. Climate Home News reported that the storm could cost the US up to $67bn in economic damages, according to an estimate from a disaster modeller. Preliminary analysis has found that human-caused climate change could have added an estimated 10% more rain to the hurricane, reported Time and other publications.
ORANGES JUICED: The storm had a major impact on Florida’s farmers and ranchers, with orange crops particularly affected, Reuters reported. It said: “Hurricane Ian is likely to have worsened what was already expected to be the smallest US orange crop in 55 years after it blasted through a large fruit producing area when it passed through Florida this week, flooding farms and causing oranges to drop from trees.” Bloomberg added that 90% of Florida’s orange crop belt was in Hurricane Ian’s path. The destruction of crops caused orange prices to surge, “driv[ing] up the cost of [orange] juice for consumers”, Bloomberg reported. Elsewhere, Reuters reported that Florida ranchers were forced to rush out to reach their cattle “after trees downed by Hurricane Ian broke fences used to contain the animals and rain from the fierce storm flooded fields used for grazing”.
CIGAR FEARS: Cuba’s tobacco-growing heartland has also been left devastated by Hurricane Ian, “with piles of wood and tiles where once stood farms”, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported. It added: “The winds and rain smashed makeshift wooden constructions where tobacco leaves are left to dry and benefit from the sun, air and humidity of Cuba.” The decimation of one of Cuba’s key industries has struck fears in a country already facing an economic crisis and a slowdown in tourism since the Covid-19 pandemic, AFP reported. “We’ve never had a catastrophe of this scale,” Maritza Carpio, owner of a tobacco estate in San Luis, told the newswire.
‘Decade of defiance’
LAND DEFENDER DEATHS: More than 1,700 land and environmental defenders around the world have been killed in the last decade while trying to protect their territories, according to analysis reported on by Al Jazeera and others. The “decade of defiance” report, put together by the charity Global Witness, also found that some 200 land defenders were killed in 2021 alone, the equivalent of nearly four people a week. Mexico was found to be the deadliest country to be a land defender, with 54 killings recorded in 2021. The report continues: “Over 40% of those killed were Indigenous people, and over a third of the total were forced disappearances, including at least eight members of the Yaqui community.” (A previous UN report found that Indigenous people in Latin America and the Caribbean protect around an eighth of all of the carbon stored by tropical rainforests in the world.)
SEIZED LAND: The findings come as a joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, O Joio e O Trigo, NBC News and the Guardian found that a supplier to food giant Nestlé used beef from seized Indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest. The investigation uncovered that beef reared on land seized from the Mỹky people on the border of the Amazon rainforest and Cerrado savanna in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state “ended up at an abattoir linked to a global supply chain that includes Nestlé”. The firm uses beef in its “baby food, pet food and seasonings”, the investigation added. Speaking to TBIJ, Xinuxi Mỹky, the village elder, said: “This pasture, where the whites live, was also our village, but now they are raising cattle. The land belonged to us: Indigenous peoples.”
DEFYING OIL: Elsewhere, Carbon Brief attended a conference in Oxford examining the key issue of fossil fuel production, which saw Indigenous people and environmental land defenders tell their stories of standing up to oil-and-gas companies looking to start extraction on their lands. Nemonte Nenquimo, an Indigenous activist and member of the Waorani Nation, gave a speech about her community’s successful effort to prevent the Ecuadorian government from issuing oil-and-gas drilling licences in their area of Amazon rainforest. She told the conference: “I’ve come here to give a message because, often, Indigenous women are excluded from these kinds of spaces for policy and decision-making…Yet we are the ones on the frontlines and it is through our struggle that we are having a real impact against climate change.” Meanwhile, Nonhle Mbuthuma, a land defender from the Xolobeni community in South Africa’s Wild Coast, spoke about her 30-year battle against multinational companies looking to conduct mining and fossil fuel operations on Indigenous land.
News and views
LOSS AND DAMAGE: “Loss and damage” is a term increasingly plastered across protest placards, hashtagged on Twitter and cited by climate-vulnerable nations at UN climate talks. But what does “loss and damage” from climate change really mean? Who’s most at risk and who’s responsible? How could it impact global action for tackling climate change? These key questions were all answered in Carbon Brief’s special series about loss and damage published last week. Last Monday, the series kicked off with an in-depth Q&A exploring the fraught question of “should developed nations pay for ‘loss and damage’ from climate change?” Tuesday saw the publication of an interactive timeline illustrating the struggle over loss and damage at the UN climate talks over the past three decades. Wednesday saw the publication of a fascinating feature exploring the “non-economic” factors that fall under the category of loss and damage. These include the loss of culture, traditions and heritage. On Thursday, Carbon Brief published a broad diversity of views from a variety of stakeholders, ranging from John Kerry and Nicola Sturgeon through to Vanessa Nakate and Mohamed Adow. And the series concluded with Carbon Brief hosting a webinar in which four panellists discussed why loss and damage is set to be a defining issue at COP27.
RAINFOREST LOBBY: Brazil threatened the UK with trade action over deforestation, an Unearthed investigation has revealed. In submissions to a UK government consultation, Brazil’s government “threatened to challenge” proposed legislation targeting deforestation in the supply chains of goods coming to the UK, according to official documents seen by Unearthed, claiming “non-compatibility with WTO [World Trade Organisation] rules”. Requiring businesses to have robust checking systems in place would be “highly burdensome”, the document continued. It comes after a surprisingly close outcome in the presidential election on Sunday, Reuters reported, meaning the country will now head to a run-off vote in four weeks. Over the last four years, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has “dismantled” environmental and Indigenous protections to the “delight” of commercial farmers and wildcat miners (illicit groups prospecting protected areas for gold and other minerals), reported Reuters. This would continue under another Bolsonaro term, which some analysts are warning is more likely after the “surprising strength” of Bolsonaro’s performance on Sunday, Reuters continued. (Analysis conducted for Carbon Brief compares policy outcomes for deforestation under a Bolsonaro and Lula presidency).
MEAT POLL: In a referendum on Sunday, 63% of Swiss voters rejected a proposal to ban intensive livestock farming, teleSUR reported. Had the ban passed, some 3,300 farms would have been forced to adapt their production processes at a cost of €1.2bn (£1.05bn) per year, the outlet continued. The ban would have also vetoed the import of products that did not meet the required standards from other countries. The Swiss government and parliament had asked citizens to reject the ban initiative – raised by the Greens and part of the Swiss Socialist Party – arguing that “the country already has one of the world’s strictest animal protection laws”. Swiss environmentalists had proposed a period of up to 25 years to “complete the productive transition” towards non-intensive livestock farming, reported teleSUR.
POOR RETURNS: Rwandan farmers on uphill and dry low-lying lands continue to find upfront costs of irrigation machinery and accessories “beyond the reach” even under state-subsidised schemes, surveys conducted by InfoNile have found. Combined with high fuel prices and poor weather since 2020, the high cost of farm inputs – with no guaranteed returns – have been “blamed” for food shortages, the outlet reported. This has exposed households to “mixed levels of food prices”, it added. Meanwhile, cattle herders in Kenya have turned to farming aloe vera – which thrives in arid and semi-arid conditions – after another failed rainy season killed thousands of cattle earlier this year, reported China Dialogue. As well as products including “soap, shampoo and herbal medicine”, the farmers also sell aloe vera sap to foreign traders for export, including a large market in China, the outlet wrote. Stanley Kiptis, governor of Baringo (a county in northern Kenya), highlighted the profitability of aloe farming: “We have more than 7,000 square kilometres of land that has been left fallow for many decades. If we can plant aloe vera on this land, we will change our lives forever; relying on livestock is now an outdated way of doing business.”
BACKFIRING: Energy policy thinktank Trend Asia has warned that a plan to reduce the amount of coal used in power generation through partial substitution with wood pellets will result in “massive deforestation” and a “net emissions surge” in Indonesia, Mongabay reported. Under the government’s plan to introduce “co-firing” with 10% biomass, 1m hectares of forest would need to be cleared for acacia and eucalyptus plantations to provide wood pellets, according to the thinktank. This would result in up to 489m tonnes of CO2 emissions – “a vastly greater amount” than the 1m tonnes in reduced emissions that cofiring is expected to achieve, wrote Mongabay.
SWINES: Two of the world’s biggest meat firms have been accused of “aggressive tax avoidance” after using offshore companies to “take advantage of different tax systems” and avoid “paying tax on more than £160m”, an investigation by the Guardian and Lighthouse Reports found. Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation – owned by Brazilian beef giant JBS and currently in control of 25% of pork and 30% poultry markets in the UK – appears to have made interest payments totalling $172.8m (£147m) to an offshore company in Luxembourg over a four-year period between 2017 and 2020, the Guardian reported. The investigation also identified that Anglo Beef Processors UK, “a leading supplier of meat to UK supermarkets”, appeared to have “significantly and legally” cut its tax bill between 2017 and 2022 by lending money from a company in one country to a related company in another, and then “borrowing it back at a different interest rate”. Both companies said they were tax compliant in all the jurisdictions in which they operate, the Guardian reported.
FOOD GIANTS: A report by the environmental justice group ETC has found that between four and six “agri-food giants” used strategies to “consolidate and expand their domination over” food systems that could hurt small-scale operators, Scroll.in reported. The “Food Barons 2022” report said that large corporations have “benefitted from the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and war”, the outlet said. “We have to remember that structural inequality and corporate concentration drive high food prices,” said ETC programme manager Veronica Villa, adding “This report highlights the startling consolidation that has enabled profiteering around climate, conflict and Covid-19. It names the culprits who are fuelling growing hunger.”
- Vietnam loses sacred cranes after habitat change –Tran Nguyen, Mekong Eye
- The people resurrecting India’s ancient fruit trees – Kamala Thiagarajan, BBC Future
- COP15 is an opportunity to save nature. We can’t afford another decade of failure – Phoebe Weston, The Guardian
- America’s lost crops rewrite the history of farming – Sarah Laskow, The Atlantic
Planting trees over Earth’s drylands to soak up CO2 may be counterproductive, a study found. This is because tree cover has lower “albedo” than drylands – meaning it absorbs more heat, leading to large local warming effects, the authors said. The research found that, when this albedo effect is taken into consideration, reforesting all suitable drylands would only tackle the equivalent of 1% of projected warming under medium- and high-emissions scenarios by 2100. The authors concluded: “Although such smart forestation is clearly important, its limited climatic benefits reinforce the need to reduce emissions rapidly.”
A new study examining how US newspapers covered the need to reduce “high-meat diets” and food waste found that articles tended to frame the issue as an “open debate” – despite scientific evidence showing dietary change will be necessary to meet the world’s climate goals. The authors explained: “Journalists covering new evidence on the need to shift diets for sustainability often quoted both the lead researcher and an opponent with ties to the livestock industry. Inclusion of ‘both sides’ was similar to previous media coverage that presented climate change as an open debate for years. Strong scientific evidence shows the need to address both [food waste] and diet shifts to improve interconnected environmental and human health outcomes.” The research also found that coverage of how to reduce food waste was “more detailed” compared to diet change. Elsewhere, a second study examining how UK media covered meat-eating in 2019 found that more than half expressed a “anti-meat consumption or production narrative”.
Covering the Earth’s land surface in trees would alter the climate so much that key ocean currents, such as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), would be affected, according to a modelling experiment. The study used simulations to examine how total global reforestation and deforestation would affect key elements of the climate system. The results demonstrate how tree-planting can have a large effect on many aspects of the climate beyond the carbon cycle, the authors said. “The design process of large-scale forestation projects thus needs to take into account global circulation adjustments and their influence on remote climate,” they concluded.
In the diary
- 10 October: US Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2022
- 13 October: Vanuatu general election
- 30 October: Brazilian second-round election