The European Union just made bioenergy worse for biodiversity

21 08 2018

bioenergy2While some complain that the European Union (EU) is an enormous, cumbersome beast (just ask the self-harming Brexiteers), it generally has some rather laudable legislative checks and balances for nature conservation. While far from perfect, the rules applying to all Member States have arguably improved the state of both European environments, and those from which Europeans source their materials.

But legislation gets updated from time to time, and not always in the ways that benefit biodiversity (and therefore, us) the most. This is exactly what’s just happened with the new EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED) released in June this year.

Now, this is the point where most readers’ eyes glaze over. EU policy discussions are exceedingly dry and boring (I’ve dabbled a bit in this arena before, and struggled to stay awake myself). But I’ll try to lighten your required concentration load somewhat by being as brief and explanatory as possible, but please stay with me — this shit is important.

In fact, it’s so important that I joined forces with some German colleagues with particular expertise in greenhouse-gas accounting and EU policy — Klaus Hennenberg and Hannes Böttcher1 of Öko-Institut (Institute of Applied Ecology) in Darmstadt — to publish an article available today in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

bioenergy4So back to the RED legislation. The original ‘RED 2009‘ covered reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions and the mitigation of negative impacts on areas of high biodiversity value, such as primary forests, protected areas, and highly biodiverse grasslands, and for areas of high carbon stock like wetlands, forests, and peatlands.

But RED 2009 was far from what we might call ‘ambitious’, because globally mandatory criteria on water, soil and social aspects for agriculture and forestry production were excluded to avoid conflicts with rules of the World Trade Organization.

Nor did RED 2009 apply to all bioenergy types, and only included biofuels used in transport, including gaseous and solid fuels, and bioliquids used for electricity, heating, and cooling. But RED 2009 requirements also applied to all raw materials sourced from agriculture and forestry, especially as forest biomass is explicitly mentioned as a raw material for the production of advanced biofuels in the RED 2009 extension from 2015.

Thus, one could conceivably call RED 2009 criteria ‘minimum safeguards’.

But as of June this year, the EU accepted a 2016 proposal to recast RED 2009 into what is now called ‘RED II’. While the revisions might look good on paper by setting new incentives in transport (advanced biofuels) and in heating and cooling that will likely increase the use of biomass sourced from forests, and by extending the directive on solid and gaseous biomass, the amendments unfortunately take some huge leaps backwards in terms of sustainability requirements.

These include the following stuff-ups: Read the rest of this entry »

Boreal forest on the edge of a climate-change tipping point

15 11 2016

As some know, I dabble a bit in the carbon affairs of the boreal zone, and so when writer Christine Ottery interviewed me about the topic, I felt compelled to reproduce her article here (originally published on EnergyDesk).

A view of the Waswanipi-Broadback Forest in the Abitibi region of Northern Quebec, one of the last remaining intact Boreal Forests in the province (source: EnergyDesk).

A view of the Waswanipi-Broadback forest in the Abitibi region of northern Quebec, one of the last remaining intact boreal forests in the Canadian province (source: EnergyDesk).

The boreal forest encircles the Earth around and just below the Arctic Circle like a big carbon-storing hug. It can mostly be found covering large swathes of Russia, Canada and Alaska, and some Scandinavian countries.

In fact, the boreal – sometimes called by its Russian name ‘taiga’ or ‘Great Northern Forest’ – is perhaps the biggest terrestrial carbon store in the world.

So it’s important to protect in a world where we’re aiming for 1.5 or – at worst – under two degrees celsius of global warming.

“Our capacity to limit average global warming to less than 2 degrees is already highly improbable, so every possible mechanism to reduce emissions must be employed as early as possible. Maintaining and recovering our forests is part of that solution,” Professor Corey Bradshaw, a leading researcher into boreal forests based at the University of Adelaide, told Energydesk.

It’s not that tropical rainforests aren’t important, but recent research led by Bradshaw published in Global and Planetary Change shows that that there is more carbon held in the boreal forests than previously realised.

But there’s a problem. Read the rest of this entry »

Ice Age? No. Abrupt warmings and hunting together polished off Holarctic megafauna

24 07 2015
Oh shit oh shit oh shit ...

Oh shit oh shit oh shit …

Did ice ages cause the Pleistocene megafauna to go extinct? Contrary to popular opinion, no, they didn’t. But climate change did have something to do with them, only it was global warming events instead.

Just out today in Science, our long-time-coming (9 years in total if you count the time from the original idea to today) paper ‘Abrupt warmings drove Late Pleistocene Holarctic megafaunal turnover‘ led by Alan Cooper of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA and Chris Turney of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre demonstrates for the first time that abrupt warming periods over the last 60,000 years were at least partially responsible for the collapse of the megafauna in Eurasia and North America.

You might recall that I’ve been a bit sceptical of claims that climate changes had much to do with megafauna extinctions during the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene, mainly because of the overwhelming evidence that humans had a big part to play in their demise (surprise, surprise). What I’ve rejected though isn’t so much that climate had nothing to do with the extinctions; rather, I took issue with claims that climate change was the dominant driver. I’ve also had problems with blanket claims that it was ‘always this’ or ‘always that’, when the complexity of biogeography and community dynamics means that it was most assuredly more complicated than most people think.

I’m happy to say that our latest paper indeed demonstrates the complexity of megafauna extinctions, and that it took a heap of fairly complex datasets and analyses to demonstrate. Not only were the data varied – the combination of scientists involved was just as eclectic, with ancient DNA specialists, palaeo-climatologists and ecological modellers (including yours truly) assembled to make sense of the complicated story that the data ultimately revealed. Read the rest of this entry »

Earth’s second lung has emphysema

19 02 2015


Many consider forests as the ‘lungs’ of the planet – the idea that trees and other plants take up carbon and produce oxygen (the carbon and oxygen cycles). If we are to be fair though, the oceans store about 93% of the Earth’s carbon pool (excluding the lithosphere and fossil fuels) and oceanic phytoplankton produces between 50 and 80% of the oxygen in the atmosphere. For comparison, the terrestrial biosphere – including forests – stores only about 5% of the Earth’s carbon, and produces most of the remainder of atmospheric oxygen.

So there’s no denying that the biggest player in these cycles is the ocean, but that’s not the topic of today’s post. Instead, I’m going to focus on the terrestrial biosphere, and in particular, the carbon storage and flux of forests.

Now it’s pretty well established that tropical forests are major players in the terrestrial carbon cycle, with the most accepted estimates of about 55% the terrestrial carbon stock stored therein. The extensive boreal forest, covering most of the northern half of North America, most of Scandinavia and a huge chunk of Russia, comes in globally at about 33%, and temperate forests store most of the remainder.

That is, until now. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye on the taiga

24 03 2014

boreal damageDun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, daaaaah!

I’ve waited nearly two years to do that, with possibly our best title yet for a peer-reviewed paper: Eye on the taiga: removing global policy impediments to safeguard the boreal forest (recently published online in Conservation Letters).

Of course, the paper has nothing to do with cheesy Eighties music, underdog boxers or even tigers, but it does highlight an important oversight in world carbon politics. The boreal forest (also known as taiga from the Russian) spans much of the land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and represents approximately one quarter of the entire planet’s forests. As a result, this massive forest contains more than 35% of all terrestrially bound carbon (below and above ground). One doesn’t require much more information to come to the conclusion that this massive second lung of the planet (considering the Amazon the first lung) is a vital component of the world’s carbon cycle, and temperate biodiversity.

The boreal forest has been largely expanding since the retreat of the glaciers following the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, which means that its slow progression northward has produced a net carbon sink (i.e., it takes up more atmospheric carbon that it releases from decomposition). However, recent evidence suggests that due to a combination of increased deforestation, fire from both human encroachment and climate change, mass outbreaks of tree-killing insects and permafrost melting, the boreal forest is tipping towards becoming a net carbon source (i.e., emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes up from photosynthesis). This is not a good thing for the world’s carbon cycle, because it means yet another positive feedback that will exacerbate the rapid warming of the planet. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation hypocrisy

28 05 2013

Another soul-searching post from Alejandro Frid.

Confession time. This is going to be delicate, and might even ruffle some big feathers. Still, all of us need to talk about it. In fact, I want to trigger a wide conversation on the flaws and merits of what I did.

Back in March of this year I saw a posting for a job with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) seeking a ‘conservation biologist to provide expert advice in the design and implementation of a Biodiversity Monitoring and Assessment Program (BMAP) in northern British Columbia, Canada’. The job sounded cool and important. I was suited for it, knew northern British Columbia well, and loved the idea of working there.

But there was a catch. The job was focused on the local impacts of fossil fuel infrastructure while dissociating itself from the climate impacts of burning that fuel, and involved collaborating with the fossil fuel company. According to the posting, this was not a new thing for the Smithsonian:

Guided by the principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity, SCBI works with a selected group of oil and gas companies since 1996 to develop models designed to achieve conservation and sustainable development objectives while also protecting and conserving biodiversity, and maintaining vital ecosystem services that benefit both humans and wildlife.

Given that climate change already is diminishing global biodiversity and hampering the ecosystem services on which we all depend, the logic seemed inconsistent to me. But there was little time to ponder it. The application deadline had just passed and my soft-money position with the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre was fizzling out. So I applied, hastily, figuring that I would deal with the issue later, if they ever got back to me. Read the rest of this entry »

The wounded soldiers of biodiversity

10 04 2012

Here’s another great post from Salvador Herrando-Pérez. It is interesting that he’s chosen an example species that was once (a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) of great interest to me (caribou – see ancient papers a, b, c, d). But that is another story. Take it away, Salva.


Figure 1. Caribou (reindeer) are ungulates weighing up to ~ 100 kg. They live in tundra and taiga in Finland, Greenland, Finland, Norway, Mongolia, Russia, Canada and USA (extinct in Sweden). The species is globally stable (‘Least Concern’, IUCN Red List), but the subspecies of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) is threatened in North America. Schneider and colleagues’ 7 study encompasses ~ 3,000 individuals in 12 herds (75 to 450 individuals per herd), occupying ~ 100.000 km2 of conifer forest and peatland (3,000 to 19,000 km2 per herd). Two ecotypes are recognized regionally22, namely migratory mountain herds (mostly from mountains and foothills in west-central Alberta), and non-migratory boreal herds (mostly from peatlands in central and northern Alberta). The photo shows a group of caribous grazing on subalpine vegetation from Tonquin Valley, Jasper National Park (Alberta, Canada). Photo courtesy of Saakje Hazenberg.

As conservation biology keeps incorporating management and economical principles from other disciplines, it stumbles with paradoxes such that investing on the most threatened components of biodiversity might in turn jeopardize the entire assets of biodiversity.

At the end of 2011, newspapers and TVs echoed an IUCN report cataloguing as ‘extinct’ or ‘near extinct’ several subspecies of rhinos in Asia and Africa. To many, such news might have invoked the topic: “how badly governments do to protect the environment”. However if, to avoid those extinctions, politicians had to deviate funds from other activities, what thoughts would come to the mind of workers whose salaries had to be frozen, school directors whose classroom-roof leakages could not be repaired (e.g., last winter at my niece’s school in Spain), colonels whose last acquisition of ultramodern tanks had to be delayed, or our city council’s department who had to cancel Sting’s next performance.

Thus, there are three unquestionable facts regarding species conservation:

  1. the protection of species costs money;
  2. governments and environmental organisations have limited budgets for a range of activities they deem necessary; and
  3. our way of conserving nature is failing because, despite increasing public/private support and awareness, the rate of destruction of biodiversity is not decelerating1,2.

One of the modern debates among conservationists pivots around how to use resources efficiently3-6. Schneider and colleagues7 have dealt with this question for woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in Canada. A total of 18 populations of this ungulate persist in the Canadian province of Alberta, all undergoing demographic declines due to mining extractions (oil, gas and bitumen), logging and wolf predation. The species is listed as ‘threatened’ regionally and nationally. The Alberta Caribou Recovery Plan (2004-2014) is attempting to protect all herds. Under such a framework, Schneider et al.7 predicted that woodland caribou would be regionally extirpated in less than a century.

Furthermore, they estimated the costs of making each herd viable (Fig. 1), with a triple revelation. To save all herds from extinction would need ~ CA$150,000 million (beyond the available budget). The most threatened herds are among the most expensive to protect (within present management approach). Some herds would be secured through modest investment for two decades. Overall, their study suggests that Alberta’s woodland caribou would be eligible for triage, i.e., at the subpopulation level8. Read the rest of this entry »