3 reasons for climate hope, from the cutting edge of tech and finance

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on February 3, 2020.

From an animal “selfie”-sharing platform to an investment fund for climate-smart businesses, 2019 saw more than its share of innovations in conservation.

But as climate breakdown accelerates — putting communities and, increasingly, the global economy at risk — can technology and finance keep up? 

Experts say yes — and are offering up some promising tech and finance innovations in 2020 to help protect nature and tackle the climate crisis. Here are some that Conservation International is working on. 

1. Charting nature’s protection 

From water supply to biodiversity to climate stability, the benefits that nature provides are often taken for granted. But identifying the sources of economic, ecological and social services that nature provides — referred to as “natural capital” — is vital for making the case to businesses, communities and countries to protect nature.   

“Decisions by governments or businesses or people to deplete natural resources could end up hurting a nation’s people and economy in the long run,” said Mike Mascia, the head of Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science. “Our goal at Conservation International is to help countries map their stores of natural capital to create the best policies to protect it.” 

In 2020, Conservation International’s scientists and partners, including the Natural Capital Project, will finalize a global map of places where natural capital is most crucial to conserve. At the UN Conference of Parties (COP) in China this October, world leaders, scientists and conservation experts will use this map to help chart a course for protecting global biodiversity and reaching sustainable development targets by 2050.

“We will use our findings to make recommendations to world leaders on how much — and where — to focus efforts to conserve critical natural capital globally,” Mascia explained. 

“This work will direct the next generation of conservation investment and, crucially, will ensure a more comprehensive assessment of the value of nature in helping countries develop sustainably.”

2. A new alliance could help connect tech with conservation 

In a recent scientific paper, a range of technology experts interested in conservation urged a decidedly low-tech approach to promoting it.

Their proposal: Create an international organization overseeing conservation technology. 

“With innovative tools ranging from space-based satellites to advanced monitoring systems, we can help fill in the blanks for research about our planet and climate,” explained Eric Fegraus, senior director of conservation technology at Conservation International and a co-author of the paper.

One of the biggest roadblocks to advancing these tools, Fegraus explained, is that many organizations are struggling to apply new technologies at the speed and scale necessary to keep up with the world’s most pressing environmental issues — but a new alliance between technologists, NGOs, the private sector, policymakers and investors could help change that.

“In 2020, we need to unite conservation technology under a more organized structure across all different industries to have the greatest possible impact,” said Fegraus. “This could be accomplished by expanding an existing technology network — such as wildlabs.net — or by creating a new entity altogether.”

This type of collaborative technology network has already proven hugely effective for wildlife conservation — through a ground-breaking web-based platform called Wildlife Insights. The platform enables researchers — and literally anyone else — to view, share and analyze animal photos taken by motion-detector cameras, known as camera traps. These photos can help researchers determine where endangered species congregate and how they behave in the wild, information that is critical to crafting smart policies and business practices for wildlife conservation that can protect animals from poaching and habitat destruction. 

Fegraus contends that all conservation technologies could have a similarly outsize impact if they were brought together under one global entity.

“There are more and more impactful conservation technologies coming online every year — however, they all face similar challenges related to scaling, implementation and financial support,” Fegraus said. 

“A broad alliance could help connect developers and conservationists with sustainable finance, business planning and advisory services, and access to technological support. In 2020, we must pool together our scientific skills, funds and engineering minds to better utilize existing technologies and to develop new technologies that create a cleaner, healthier planet.” 

3. Seed money for small businesses saving the planet 

The latest Global Risks Report from the World Economic Forum lists environmental risks as the top five threats to the global economy — a first in the survey’s history. 

Increasingly, scientists and economists are proposing a new strategy: investing in businesses that support nature.

“Entrepreneurs all over the world are creating solutions that have the potential to tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental challenges,” said Agustin Silvani, senior vice president of conservation finance at Conservation International. “We must work toward channeling more private capital to these businesses and projects that are restoring critical natural resources and tangibly improving hundreds of millions of lives.”

A new investment fund, Conservation International (CI) Ventures, is helping the private sector achieve this by supporting small- to medium-sized enterprises that have built their businesses around conservation — and connecting them with larger-scale funding they would not otherwise have access to.

“A crucial part of conservation is investing in businesses and helping people build their economies,” Silvani said. “Our new investment fund will continue to demonstrate to investors that underwriting conservation isn’t risky — it’s actually one of the best things that companies can do to protect their supply chains as climate change accelerates.”

Established in August 2019, CI Ventures already supports five conservation-minded enterprises, ranging from coffee farms to family-owned food companies. The fund currently provides more than US$ 1.55 million in loans and US$ 8.9 million co-financing from partners to businesses that operate in the forests, oceans and grasslands where Conservation International works. 

CI Ventures aims to deploy an additional US$ 3 million in low-interest loans in 2020 to businesses that are striving to create sustainable jobs for their communities, while simultaneously protecting the nature they rely on. By 2028, Conservation International and partners will invest a total of US$ 200 million in loans, supporting more than 60,000 livelihoods around the world. 

A portion of the profit generated by the enterprises supported by CI Ventures will go into paying off their loans, and the returned capital will then be reinvested into more businesses that are trying to make a difference for their communities — and conservation. 

While this fund will help grow smaller companies that contribute to healthy ecosystems, Silvani emphasized the need to expand conservation across all of finance. 

“This is the year science tells us we need to bend the emissions curve downward and the same applies to finance. ‘Green’ finance — which supports low-carbon, sustainable development — needs to overtake ‘brown’ — which supports high-carbon development — if we are to meet our climate commitments,” Silvani explained. 

“We have reached a tipping point in terms of making commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; 2020 should be the year we reach a tipping point in turning those promises into action.”

Discovery afoot: New study cracks mystery of how ‘walking’ sharks split

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on January 22, 2020.

A type of shark that has long captivated scientists and divers for its preferred mode of underwater travel — walking — just got even more interesting.

Researchers have found that walking sharks are collectively the “youngest” — as in, the most recently evolved — sharks to ever walk (or swim) the planet.

Conservation News spoke with one of the authors of a new study on walking sharks, Conservation International’s Mark Erdmann, to find out how he and his team uncovered the evolutionary origin of walking sharks — and how this information could help us adapt to climate change.

Question: Why are they called walking sharks?

Answer: Instead of swimming around, these little bottom-dwelling sharks actually “walk” using their pectoral and pelvic fins, which makes it easier for them to poke their heads under coral and rocks as they look for small fish, snails and crustaceans to eat.

In 2006, we discovered two new species of walking sharks in the Bird’s Head Seascape of West Papua, Indonesia. Since then, we have done loads of research to learn more about these mysterious creatures: why do they walk? How did they evolve? What can their unique traits teach us?

Q: So what did you do?

A: Working with the world’s foremost shark geneticists from the University of Queensland, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the University of Florida, we set out to determine when these curious little critters evolved from their shark ancestors by using a technique called “dated molecular clock methodology.” This uses genetic samples from shark fin clippings — just like nail clippings for humans — to compare the mutations in each shark species to estimate the date when each branched off into a new species. Sharks as a group have actually been around for about 400 million years, predating the dinosaurs by 200 million years.

Amazingly, we discovered that walking sharks evolved just 9 million years ago, making them the “youngest” sharks on our planet.

Q: What else did this “molecular clock” show you?

A: Back in 2016, we reported that the nine known species of walking shark are found exclusively in a ring around Northern Australia, New Guinea and the satellite islands of Raja Ampat, Aru and Halmahera in Indonesia.

Using this clock, we set out to learn how the walking sharks separated into so many distinct species — a process known as speciation. Speciation typically happens when individuals of a given species get separated from their main population — sometimes by walking or swimming or being carried away on a current to an isolated place. If they are lucky enough to survive and breed, eventually evolution will take this new population in a different direction and often leads to a new species.

For a shark that isn’t able to swim far and doesn’t move much, we wondered how that separation could possibly be the case.

The name of the paper — “Walking, swimming or hitching a ride” — actually reveals our three main hypotheses to answer this puzzling mystery. For most of the walking shark species, our findings support the idea that speciation occurred because the populations slowly expanded their range by walking or swimming, then some individuals eventually became isolated by environmental factors such as sea level rise or the formation of large river systems that broke up their habitats.

For the four walking shark species found at the Bird’s Head Seascape, we suspect that they actually hitched a ride — on a drifting island.

Q: They hitched a ride on an island?

A: Indeed. We’ve found that most walking sharks spend their entire lives on the same reef they where they hatched — never really moving more than a mile out of this radius. The only way they can get across deep water or move a significant distance would be if they are on a reef that is moving due to tectonic plates shifting.

By analyzing sea-level rise and tectonic shifts over the past 50 million years, we know that island fragments around Australia and Southeast Asia have been constantly spinning, splitting apart and smashing against each other — it’s basically an island disco.

We also know that beginning around 10 million years ago, one particular set of island fragments moved northwest from southeastern New Guinea along the coast of the island, until it eventually joined together to form the modern-day Halmahera Island. These islands potentially transported walking sharks from southeastern New Guinea all the way to the Bird’s Head Seascape in Indonesia, where they likely radiated into the four species we can now find in West Papua.

Although these walking sharks may have used an “island ferry” to move around 1,600 km (1,000 miles), the home range of where each species lives on the reef remains small. The downside to this is that species with smaller habitats are inherently at a higher risk of extinction — a tsunami or volcanic explosion could wipe out half the population in one fell swoop.

Q: How secure are these sharks, then?

A: Walking sharks are actually very robust and can survive in extremely hot environments with little oxygen — they can even walk on land for a bit!

But as climate change accelerates, the real concern is for their habitats. Hotter ocean temperatures are killing the coral and seagrass that many marine species and crustaceans rely on — including walking sharks’ primary sources of food. On top of this, sediment from unsustainable coastal development projects is leaking into these reefs, creating an environment that is unsuitable for walking sharks and other fish.

Another potential issue facing these charismatic creatures is the ornamental fish trade. Walking sharks have now become major targets for capture and display by both large public aquariums and private collectors, and we are concerned that this unregulated trade may be unsustainable.

Q: Can walking sharks be protected from these threats?

A: Fortunately, many of the walking sharks are already at least partly protected by regional marine protected areas (MPAs) — areas of the ocean where human activity is restricted, preventing overfishing and keeping the waters healthy. The Bird’s Head Seascape marine protected area network, for instance, covers habitat occupied by three of the walking shark species, with one of these (Hemiscyllium freycineti) completely protected by the Raja Ampat Shark and Ray Sanctuary. The massive scale of these MPAs are critical for protecting this species — and the rest of the marine life and coral living within the ecosystem.

Our goal, however, is to make sure all walking shark species are protected. The best way to do this is for the Indonesian government to grant full legal protection status to walking sharks across the entire country. Similar to whale sharks and manta rays — which both now have full protected species status in Indonesia— walking sharks are clearly more valuable to the national economy alive rather than dead due to their strong appeal in the ecotourism industry.

Q: Is there another mystery about walking sharks you hope to solve?

A: From a scientific perspective, there is still so much to learn from walking sharks. We know that the world’s species that exist today are basically the existing “genetic reservoir” (raw genetic material) we have to adapt to global changes. We also know that walking sharks are very resilient to warm water and that they have a tolerance for oxygen deprivation. Any time you have an animal or plant that can survive in these extreme conditions, there is typically something unique about their genes — a “special sauce”. Exploring the genetic basis behind these unique traits in walking sharks could give us invaluable knowledge as we try to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

3 reasons for hope in a crucial year for climate action

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on January 8, 2020.

If 2019 was the year that the world finally took note of climate impacts sweeping the globe, 2020 will be critical for taking action to prevent them from getting worse.

With about 10 years to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, researchers are racing to address climate breakdown on multiple fronts, testing models and devising plans to inform countries, communities and companies on how they can use science, finance and policy to protect nature — and forestall climate disaster.

Here are three areas where Conservation International experts are focusing their efforts in a crucial year for the climate.

1. We need to restore what has been lost

The only way to avoid the worst climate scenarios, scientists contend, is by cutting carbon emissions while removing excess carbon from the atmosphere.

Luckily, there’s a “hack” for both: restoring the world’s tropical forests.

“Once we’ve stopped emissions, our best bet at reversing climate breakdown is to remove carbon from the atmosphere by restoring damaged ecosystems and forests,” said Nikola Alexandre, a forest restoration expert at Conservation International.

“Restoration and reforestation takes decades, so if we don’t get it right now, we’ll have missed our shot.”

But with more than 75 percent of the Earth’s land areas identified as substantially degraded, where is the best place to start?

Conservation International scientists are currently developing a global map of the areas that have the highest restoration potential at the lowest cost to help governments prioritize their efforts to curb emissions. The science has already revealed one of those critical ecosystems: the Amazon.

The Amazon absorbs more than 2 billion tons of carbon emissions per year, which is 5 percent of the annual emissions released into the atmosphere across the entire planet. In 2020, Conservation International will continue to support a large-scale restoration project of more than 30,000 hectares (74,131 acres) of Brazilian Amazon, collaborating with indigenous peoples, local NGOs and state governments to protect the world’s biggest rainforest.

Another one of the most vital, but perhaps lesser known, ecosystems in the fight to stop climate breakdown is the African savanna. In Kenya, the savanna is a powerhouse when it comes to absorbing carbon, though these lands are constantly being degraded and destroyed by encroaching farmlands, charcoal burning and forest fires. In partnership with Apple, Conservation International will continue to work with Maasai pastoralists in 2020 to restore and protect the savannah through an ongoing conservation project in Chyulu Hills, a sprawling landscape between Kenya’s Tsavo and Amboseli national parks.

It’s a great start, but it will require rapid, widespread restoration efforts across the globe to make a dent in the climate crisis.

“The only way we’ll be able to restore our damaged ecosystems fast enough to make a difference is by using 2020 to increase funding for restoration projects and developing new policies to protect nature,” said Alexandre.

“This means we have to take 2020 to bring together the best social and natural science to understand where and how to restore, forge new partnerships, and support the right people to lead the work. It’s a huge task, but it’s one that gives us a chance at proactively shaping the future we need.”

2. A market for living carbon could be key

Since the Paris Agreement was finalized in 2015, 197 countries have pledged their commitments to reduce carbon emissions and avoid the most severe impacts of climate breakdown before it’s too late.

The Paris Agreement officially goes into force in 2020 — which means these countries must find ways to make their emissions reductions goals a reality.

“2020 is the year when political, investment and business commitments must match the science,” said Shyla Raghav, Conservation International’s vice president for climate. “The decisions that we make today will have far-reaching consequences for the scale and pace at which climate change accelerates.”

Many climate experts agree that one of the most effective ways for countries to reach their targets is by establishing a carbon market — which would enable countries to buy emissions reductions from other countries or sectors that have already made extra cuts to their own carbon emissions.

Carbon markets are already helping some governments reach their climate goals, including California, the world’s fifth-largest economy. And in South America, Colombia’s carbon tax and market have already generated more than US$ 250 million, which is helping to fund the country’s protected areas, and forest restoration and coastal erosion work.

“We need incentives and policies to channel funds to the places that need it the most,” explained Raghav. “Putting a price on carbon and investing in nature’s power as a climate solution are a few of the best ways to do this.”

In 2020, Conservation International will be working with governments and businesses to help them access carbon market projects by emphasizing the role of nature in stopping climate change.

“We need to stop climate breakdown from becoming so severe that our planet will become uninhabitable or that our Amazon will become a savanna or that coastal cities will become submerged,” said Raghav. “We have a long road ahead of us, but I am hopeful.”

3. Coming soon: A roadmap for using nature as a climate solution

In a landmark study published in 2017, a group of researchers led by Bronson Griscom, who researches natural climate solutions at Conservation International, discovered that nature can deliver at least 30 percent of the emissions reductions needed by 2030 to prevent climate catastrophe.

Now these experts are developing a roadmap to help countries and businesses identify how to actually use nature as a climate solution.

“The past decade has been about getting the information and knowledge to prepare and inspire ourselves for major action — 2020 is all about actually acting,” Griscom said. “This roadmap will show countries how to use natural climate solutions to reach their emissions reductions targets. This is not a pipe dream; there are already shining examples of countries that are already delivering on their promises to protect nature.”

One of the countries that is leading the pack is Costa Rica. By protecting its forests and mangroves instead of destroying them, the country is at the forefront of the global effort to end the climate crisis.

In the past 25 years, Costa Rica has tripled its GDP while doubling its forest cover; it has also pledged to become the world’s first carbon-neutral nation by 2021. To do this, the Costa Rican government is engaging with farmers and landowners in the protection and restoration of their forests in exchange for payment for the “ecosystem services” — such as carbon storage, water supply and wildlife — that the forests provide.

To follow Costa Rica’s example, Conservation International will be working with indigenous and tribal communities in Suriname to introduce climate-smart forestry practices to the community’s timber industry. These practices will enable carbon financing, which will support these forest communities to both fully protect lands and implement reduced- impact logging for climate systems that will cut the emissions released during logging in half, while producing the same amount of wood.

While national and community efforts are critical to addressing the climate crisis, businesses must also act, Griscom says — and they must start now.

“The private sector doesn’t have to wait for policy changes like country governments,” Griscom said. “This roadmap will show corporations where to invest in natural climate solutions, so they can develop more climate-smart business models while improving jobs and rural livelihoods.”

Conservation in pop culture: an elephant film, a ‘climate-friendly’ cookbook and more

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on December 3, 2019.

Conservation is everywhere in pop culture — even if we don’t always recognize it as such. In an occasional series, we review shows, podcasts and more that bring nature to life for you.

A nature documentary that captures the value of family (even for elephants) 

Across the vast grasslands of Kenya roams the world’s largest land mammal: the African elephant. In the new documentary “The Elephant Queen,” viewers follow an African elephant matriarch named Athena as she guides her herd through the savanna to find a new watering hole during the dry season. 

Released by Apple TV+ — the technology company’s new streaming service — “The Elephant Queen” virtually transports viewers into the elephants’ world, capturing each of their unique personalities.

While watching the film, people will find themselves comparing baby elephant “Wewe” to an annoying — but endearing — younger sibling, or mourning with the entire herd as they stumble upon a fallen comrade’s skull. During their treacherous journey, this elephant family faces food and water shortages caused by a changing climate, but even severe droughts are no match for their fearless matriarch as she leads them to safety. 

Viewers will also get to meet other characters in the Kenyan savanna — from pugnacious dung beetles to a confused goose named Steven.  

An added bonus: While you’re watching this elephant herd, you are actually helping to protect their entire species. In a partnership with Conservation International, Apple will make a donation for each view of the “The Elephant Queen” that will support elephant conservation efforts in the Kenyan savanna. 

A new (online) cookbook takes the mystery out of ‘climate-friendly’ food

We’ve all seen the headlines and reports: Climate change is here, and it is humanity’s fault

It’s easy to get bogged down by this endless stream of bad news, sucked into an abyss of guilt and helplessness. Yet, as an individual, your decisions can make a difference for the environment. One place to start is by changing your diet.

In a collaboration between The New York Times’ food and climate desks, the “Climate-Friendly Cooking” series offers a range of adventurous and sustainable recipes to minimize the impact of your meals on the environment. 

Let’s admit it: Changing your diet is easier said than done, but this online cookbook gives alternatives to classic meals that you will actually want to eat. 

If you’re in the mood for seafood, try the baked cod with crunchy miso-butter breadcrumbs. Thinking Japanese? Try the kimchi rice porridge. 

“Takeout-style sesame noodles” is a quick and healthy dish that can help you make the sustainable switch from expensive, carbon-emitting delivery (avoiding takeout food can help reduce plastic pollution in the environment, too!).

A podcast that investigates how science shaped the way we live now 

Sometimes, the best way to prepare for the future is to learn from the past — and science is no exception. 

The “Science History Podcast” revisits critical moments in history that have helped shape science in the present day. This monthly podcast explores topics that you didn’t even know you wanted to learn about (what is plant warfare, exactly?). 

In the most recent episode, the show’s host, ecotoxicologist Frank Von Hippel, interviews Ian Harrison, Conservation International’s director of freshwater science and policy. During the one-hour episode, Harrison discusses the rapid decline of freshwater ecosystems — and what it is going to take to save them. 

“We’ve forced ourselves into this point where we have to be thinking more practically about water use and needs because it is becoming such a restricted resource,” Harrison says in the episode.  

One of the many ways to protect freshwater ecosystems, Harrison suggests, is by encouraging people to conserve the “charismatic” species that depend on them. By protecting the habitat of  “lovable” species such as pink river dolphins, people will also indirectly conserve other important (but perhaps less attractive) species, such as trout. 

  • Only have a minute? Listen to Conservation International Executive Vice President Sebastian Troëng (briefly) describe an innovative way to reduce climate-warming emissions.

A photo collection that is changing the way we talk about climate change

A child huddled atop a car, seeking refuge from the deluge that plagued her house after a tidal wave. 

A farmer clinging to the dry remains of his once-healthy soil after a severe drought. 

A firefighter shrouded in ash and smoke as bushfires blaze through Australia. 

These are a few of the photographs from the vault of the “Climate Visuals” photography project, which tells the stories of people across the world that are struggling to adapt to the destructive impacts of climate change. 

Created by Climate Outreach, Europe’s foremost climate communication organization, this compelling photo gallery captures the human toll of the climate crisis through the frown lines etched on an impacted individual’s face — or the angry spark in a climate protesters’ eyes.

These images were not chosen at random. 

In 2016, Climate Outreach conducted a massive social survey in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Germany to determine which types of photos are most engaging to an everyday audience, finding that people relate most to candid climate scenarios in local communities.  

With more than 600 images, the Climate Visual library is pushing climate communication in a new direction. Rather than only showing polar bears on melting ice caps, this project illustrates what will happen to humanity if our behavior does not change. In the fight to stop climate breakdown, a picture can be worth a thousand words. 

New science: rare plants, climate consequences, marine movement

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on December 5, 2019.

Protecting nature starts with science. Here’s a roundup of recent science published by Conservation International experts. 

1. Close to 40 percent of plant species are at risk of extinction

Nearly 40 percent of global plant species are categorized as “very rare” — observed less than five times ever — and are most at risk for extinction as climate change accelerates, according to a recent report.

Conservation International scientist Patrick Roehrdanz and other researchers worked for a decade to compile and assess more than 20 million observational records of land-based plants in the world’s largest collection of data of this kind ever assembled. 

What they found: Out of the 435,000 known land plant species found on Earth, a staggering 158,000 of those are at risk of extinction. The researchers pointed to climate change and habitat loss for the lion’s share of plant loss in recent years — which may soon lead to a mass extinction of rare plants that could significantly reduce plant diversity around the world, negatively impacting wildlife survival and soil health. 

“By mapping where these rare species occur, we are better able to highlight the dual threats of climate change and human impact on the regions that harbor much of the world’s rare plant species,” said Roehrdanz. “This research emphasizes the need for strategic conservation to protect these cradles of biodiversity.”

2. Plant species on New Guinea face an uncertain future 

Climate change is threatening plant species on one of the world’s unique wildlife hotspots, according to a new study.

A biologically diverse tropical island, New Guinea is home to more than 9,000 plant species that exist only in this South Pacific region. In this study, scientists developed a system to understand the current ranges of where these unique species are found — and predict what their future ranges could look like depending on various scenarios of climate change, such as longer winters or hotter summers. The results were concerning.

According to the study, approximately 63 percent of these plant species are expected to have a smaller geographic range by 2070, resulting in an average loss of 30 to 110 species across different regions.

“The shifting ranges of these plant species will have serious consequences on the environment and human well-being in New Guinea,” said Roehrdanz, a co-author on this paper. “Indigenous peoples in this area rely on these plants for food, medicine and construction.”

These plant species are also woven into the cultural heritage of many indigenous communities across New Guinea and are often used for clothing and rituals. Understanding the potential consequences of climate change on New Guinea’s plant species could help protect the nature communities depend on and identify the areas where conservation initiatives and forest restoration projects would have the greatest impact.

3. As marine life moves, ocean conservation must adapt

recent report recommends new ways for ocean conservation efforts to respond to the impacts of climate change.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) — areas of the ocean where human activities are limited — are the cornerstone of ocean conservation, but the impacts of the climate crisis could undermine their effectiveness. Warming waters and ocean acidification are causing fish species to move to different regions of the ocean, which poses unique challenges to sustainably managed fisheries.  

“The report emphasizes the need for new tools that are constantly updating fishers as marine species move,” said Lee Hannah, senior scientist for climate change biology at Conservation International and co-author of the study. “It’s not just Nemo and Dory that are riding shifting currents,” he said, referring to the popular Disney characters, “it’s the entire marine food chain. High-tech satellite and navigation techniques can help fishing boats steer away from whales, dolphins and seabirds that are caught in their path.”

The report outlines eight guidelines for countries to create a global network of MPAs that can actively respond to the impacts of the climate crisis, such as creating a global database of new ocean management techniques to ensuring that all MPAs are climate-resilient through adequate staffing and funding.  

“This research can help countries develop climate-smart MPAs that will protect the ocean, while conserving the fish that millions of people around the world depend on for food and jobs,” Hannah said. “Marine life is moving all over the world, and we have to be ready to manage change as it comes.”  

In wind-swept Andes, (sustainable) vicuña wool is good as gold

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on November 17, 2019.

The vast plains of the Altiplano in southern Bolivia are a seemingly lifeless expanse.

With sparse vegetation, desert sands and dry salt flats, it’s difficult to imagine how any creature could survive in an ecosystem like this.

Yet in the midst of this landscape, the vicuña — the undomesticated, fluffy cousin of the alpaca, and the source of the finest and most expensive animal fiber on the planet — is not only surviving, it is thriving.

This wasn’t always the case. In the time of the Incas, who worshipped the pony-sized creature and permitted only royalty to wear its wool, about 3 million vicuñas roamed the plains. By the 1960s, vicuñas were hunted to near extinction — killed for their wool instead of simply sheared — with only 6,000 remaining throughout the world.

Today, their population has soared to more than 350,000.

So what caused this meteoric rebound? And why on Earth are luxury fashion houses paying so much money for vicuña wool, once known as the “silk of the new world”?

In 2017, Conservation International videographer John Martin visited the area near the famous Uyuni salt flats — which he described as “surreal, as if painted by Salvador Dalí” — to answer those questions and more.

In a new short film that Martin shot and produced, he tells the centuries-old history of the vicuñas and a small community in the southern Andes who depend on them, shear them — and, ultimately, protect them.

It all starts, he said, with the esquila, the annual shearing of the vicuñas. The wool is combed and processed by women in the community, and then sold to textile manufacturers or fashion companies for a price more than 10 times that of cashmere and more than 100 times that of wool.

For the past two years, Conservation International has helped communities in the southern Bolivian Andes to hold their own esquilas in a safe and sustainable way. The profits from vicuña wool help support many families’ incomes, while the vicuñas’ protected status helps prevent them from poaching.

The result? “The vicuñas give the community something, and they give the vicuñas respect and protection in return.”

In the municipality of Colcha K, where some of the largest vicuña herds are found, the local community recently performed their first esquila.

“Everyone took part in it, from elders to women to small children. Even the nearby army base came to offer support because they wanted to make sure it was a success,” Martin noted. “You could feel the team spirit and respect within the community.”

As the esquila began, community members walked in a line waving colorful ribbons, distracting the skittish vicuñas enough to safely corral them into a large enclosure. Before shearing the animals, the community’s shaman — the medicine man and spiritual adviser — performed a ritual out of respect for nature.

The goal of this ceremony, explained Martin, was to show reverence for sacred indigenous ways and to honor the connection with Mother Earth and with nature. “Before you take something from the Earth, you have to ask permission first,” he said.

A single vicuña produces only about 0.5 kilograms (1.1 pounds) of wool, and by the end of the esquila, 55 vicuñas were sheared and safely released back into the wild. An item of clothing made of 100-percent vicuña fiber can fetch thousands — even tens of thousands — of dollars at a luxury retailer.

Near Colcha K, 57 percent of the population currently lives below the poverty line, relying on harvesting quinoa and mining salt to support their livelihoods. Now, the vicuñas are helping to change that.

“The earnings from sales like this are transformative for Bolivian communities,” said Eduardo Forno, Conservation International Bolivia’s executive director. “The communities normally distribute earnings equally by family or even use them to improve schools and support health centers.”

By protecting the animals, conserving their habitat and learning how to shear them safely and process their wool, local men and women have a valuable — and sustainable — new source of income. And the vicuña population can continue to survive, and to grow.

“This story needed to be told,” said Martin, “to help people understand how these communities and these animals are not only living together, but thriving through conservation. This is a win-win for people and nature.”

New book chronicles a lawless ocean

This article originally appeared on Conservation News on October 31, 2019.

Earth’s largest expanse is a parallel world, lawless and largely invisible, where crime and exploitation rage unchecked, a new book reports. 

In “The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys across the last untamed frontier,” investigative journalist Ian Urbina uncovers slavery, overfishing and human trafficking on the high seas. 

The effects of these crimes touch nearly everyone on the planet, destroying marine life, undermining food security and driving social instability and poverty.

In a recent conversation with Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan, Urbina discussed the moments that troubled him most during his years out on the ocean — and why there is still hope.

Urbina spent 40 months on boats traveling 12,000 nautical miles across 14 countries, encountering some of the most flagrant — and unreported — environmental and human rights abuses across the high seas. 

On a transnational ship more than 160 km (100 miles) off the coast of Thailand, Urbina witnessed firsthand the horrifying, rat-infested conditions that impoverished fishermen were being forced to endure as they were held captive at sea, far out of reach from any government authorities. 

At the core of these abuses is the simple truth that no one is clear on who owns what in the ocean — which means, ultimately, that no one is responsible. 

“To me, the problem is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind reality that results in an utter lack of governance in a sprawling space that has for too long simply been thought of as a space — rarely a workplace,” Urbina said. “There is a long cultural and intellectual history behind thinking of the sea and maritime as another world where things are different.”

In international waters, the ocean isn’t legally owned or monitored by any government. Boat captains striving to meet the increasing demand for seafood, for example, can essentially practice slave labor with impunity. To supplement their poor — or non-existent — wages, many disenfranchised fishers turn to illegal practices such as shark finning.

Urbina’s book crystallizes just how entangled human rights abuses and environmental abuses — overfishing, illegal fishing, toxic waste dumping — are in maritime industries. 

Echoing the “not-my-problem” approach that individual countries have often taken to lawbreaking out on the water, efforts to reform the fishing industry have largely been split, with environmental organizations addressing issues related to sustainability, ocean health, marine habitats — and social welfare organizations addressing human rights problems. 

Only recently has there been broader recognition that environmental problems and social problems on the high seas are two sides of the same coin.

In 2017, Jack Kittinger, a marine expert in Conservation International’s Hawai’i office, conceived a new approach for addressing both at the same time. Working with partners, Kittinger developed a “social responsibility” framework for the seafood industry that offers concrete recommendations to players at every point in the seafood supply chain to ensure that social responsibility is enforced at every level — from the businesses buying the fish to the governments regulating the marine resources powering the industry.

The framework is at the forefront of new approaches to fight crimes on the high seas. A proposed international treaty, now under negotiation, aims to protect marine life in international waters — though questions remain as to enforcement.

What Urbina’s book makes crystal-clear is the colossal scale of illegal activity in international waters.

“Even for someone who spent their entire lives in conservation… [this book] was a revelation to me,” said Sanjayan, noting that while there have been strides in making the sustainability of seafood more transparent, consumers still know next to nothing about the living and working conditions of the people who caught that seafood.

In a “lawless” ocean, how do you even begin to monitor what’s happening, let alone punish abuses and protect the voiceless workers trapped on ships? 

“[These boats] moving through a place that no one governs, that have a ship flag to one country, captain from another country, manned by a crew from a different country in international waters and dropping on their cargo in fourth country: It is not easy [to track],” Urbina said. 

“But it is utterly feasible. There are already movements afoot.”

Watch the entire interview here.

From bean to barista: 4 things to know about coffee and climate

This post originally appeared on Conservation News on October 1, 2019.

On International Coffee Day, we turn our attention to the topic on everyone’s minds after last week: the climate crisis. Like almost everything we consume, coffee is already suffering the effects of a changing climate.

Yet coffee cultivation is a driver of the very processes that are speeding up the climate breakdown. How to meet growing global demand for coffee while preventing it from fueling deforestation — and while protecting it from the effects of a changing climate? We turned to Conservation International’s Bambi Semroc to explain.

1.) Climate change could jeopardize our ability to grow coffee

Research shows that the effects of climate change have the potential to cut the world’s coffee-growing regions in half — which is why many coffee farmers are looking to higher ground.

“Some coffee — particularly the arabica crop — requires certain conditions to grow, which are trending toward higher and higher altitudes due to the changing climate,” explained Semroc. “Those higher altitudes are usually where we have the last intact remaining forest areas, which some farmers are destroying to plant more coffee crops.”

To tackle this growing issue, Conservation International launched the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a network that urges its 136 partners — including Starbucks, Walmart, McDonald’s and Dunkin’— to commit to sustaining the world’s coffee. Sustainable coffee is grown in a way that conserves nature and provides better livelihoods for the people who grow and process it.

Climate change can cultivate ideal conditions for pests and diseases that target coffee crops all over the world, already ravaging farms from Mexico to Indonesia. This bleak future can be prevented only if coffee companies also commit to ending one of the main drivers of climate change: deforestation.

2.) Deforestation is a risk to the coffee sector

Coffee is grown in tropical ecosystems, which are home to some of the greatest stores of forests and biodiversity in the world. The demand for coffee is growing by 2 percent each year and it is estimated that global production needs to triple by 2050 to meet market demands, which could require an additional 30 million hectares (more than 74 million acres) of land if we are not able to enhance production on existing farms. Otherwise coffee would have to expand into surrounding forests, encroaching deeper into wildlife habitats and decimating the trees that are critical to stopping climate change. A recent UN climate report warned that unsustainable agriculture is one of the top causes of deforestation.

To ensure coffee works toward conservation, the Sustainable Coffee Challenge is pushing its partners to promote coffee farm renovation. Almost a quarter of the commitments from coffee partners are dedicated to conserving nature, which can be accomplished through reducing deforestation and supporting forest restoration efforts. In partnership with the Walmart Foundation, Conservation International scientists are mapping areas at the highest risk from deforestation to determine the best regions to target these rehabilitation efforts.

“Our goal is to essentially freeze deforestation in the coffee sector by restoring and rehabilitating existing coffee farms,” said Semroc. “This will increase productivity so that farmers don’t need to go deeper into the forests.”

3.) Coffee farmers’ livelihoods are at risk

More than 120 million people depend on coffee for their livelihoods, primarily those who farm the caffeinated crop. Today coffee trade prices have hit a 10-year low that is below its cost of production in many countries, putting farmers’ livelihoods at stake as they are not able to invest in their farms or support their families. Most coffee farming communities are located in developing countries with low average incomes, poor health conditions and even child labor practices. To protect coffee, the industry must first protect those who grow and harvest it.

Coupled with this price crisis, climate breakdown threatens coffee crop supplies and has the potential to diminish coffee farmers’ primary source of income even further.

“You can’t have sustainable coffee if farmers aren’t profitable, it is as simple as that,” said Semroc. “The four focus areas of the sustainable coffee challenge — conserving nature, sustaining supply, strengthening demand and improving livelihoods — act like a compass, and farmers are right in the middle of it.”

4.) You can help save coffee

In celebration of International Coffee Day, Conservation International’s Sustainable Coffee Challenge will promote a campaign to support coffee farmers in landscapes that are threatened by climate change and market instability.

The “Plant Trees. Save Coffee” campaign will help protect the world’s supply of coffee, while ensuring the long-term health of farming communities where the crop has strong social and economic importance. The campaign will target regions in Honduras, Colombia and Peru, providing farmers with climate-resilient coffee trees and coffee-friendly trees — enabling farmers to adapt in places that are particularly vulnerable to climate breakdown.

“By supporting farmer efforts to renovate coffee and restore forest cover on their farms, we are investing in the future of coffee, coffee communities and our planet,” said Semroc.

Climate crisis pushing oceans to the brink, report warns

This post originally appeared on Conservation News on September 25, 2019.

The world’s oceans are perilously close to wreaking havoc on humanity due to climate change, according to a new report.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate” today in the midst of Climate Week, days after world leaders gathered at the UN Climate Action Summit to discuss this pressing global crisis. The report outlines the grave impacts climate change will have on the world’s oceans and what governments need to do to prevent the collapse of marine ecosystems.

Conservationists are sounding the alarm.

“In the climate breakdown, as emissions rise, absorptive oceans become hot, stratified, acidic,” said Conservation International’s CEO M. Sanjayan. “This is not new information. But today, the IPCC confronts us with the urgency to prevent future harm and the reality of irreversible damage.”

Higher ocean temperatures are melting polar ice and glaciers from the Greenland and Antarctic sheets at a rapid rate, resulting in an unprecedented rise of sea levels that has the potential to displace more than 680 million people living across low-lying coastal communities, according to the report. This rising class of migrants, known as “climate refugees,” may be forced to make fundamental shifts to adapt to climate change

Many coastal cities and small island nations will experience “extreme sea level events” that were previously historically rare, at least once every year by 2050, even if countries are able to reach their emissions reduction targets, says the report. Indonesia is already preparing for this future as it moves its capital out of Jakarta — the fastest-sinking city in the world — to Borneo to avoid mass flooding from the sea.

“The negative impacts on food and water security, human well-being, livelihoods and more caused by the changes already occurring in the ocean and cryosphere are undeniable — and for those living along Earth’s coastlines, the devastation will be astronomical,” said Aulani Wilhelm, the senior vice president of Conservation International’s Center for Oceans.  “The need for immediate, transformative action is clear. It’s time for the world to recognize that climate change is ocean change.”

The report warns that if man-made emissions are not significantly cut by the end of the century, permafrost (frozen soil) across the Northern Hemisphere’s could thaw. This could release between 1,460 to 1,600 gigatons of carbon, which is almost “twice the carbon in the atmosphere,” states the report.  

Humans will not be the only ones affected by degraded ocean ecosystems and the rapidly changing climate. Marine heatwaves have doubled since the 1980s, notes the report, killing fish, seabirds, coral reefs and seagrasses. Increased levels of ocean acidification could cause a mass extinction of shelled marine life — from crabs to coral — which the report says can be avoided if emissions are deeply cut this century. A portion of these emissions reductions and better marine conservation can be achieved, Wilhelm says, by restoring coastal wetlands, ending illegal fishing and safeguarding oceans through networks of marine protected areas. 

As discouraging as the report’s findings are, all is not lost, experts said.

“How resounding the consequences, how great the effect, is still up to us,” said Sanjayan. “It’s a matter of resilience and adaptation. It’s a matter of protecting and restoring oceans. It’s time to align governments, businesses, local communities to protect the vulnerable, the millions who live on the water’s edge, and ensure indigenous peoples continue to be on the forefront of ocean stewardship. This is a moment for resolve.”

What is the Tropical Forest Standard? An expert explains

This article originally appeared on Conservation News on September 5, 2019.

As fires rage across the Amazon, an act thousands of miles away will generate financial incentive to help keep those forests standing.

In an historic decision, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) voted to adopt the Tropical Forest Standard on September 19, 2019, securing the state’s legacy as an environmental leader on a global scale for generations to come. This Standard provides a blueprint for allowing tropical forest protection initiatives to be included in the state’s programs to cut climate-warming carbon emissions. By passing the Tropical Forest Standard, California is sending a strong signal to the rest of the world that it pays to protect nature.

Here are six things you need to know about the Tropical Forest Standard.

1.) The Tropical Forest Standard can help slow down the rate of climate change and regulate rainfall.

One of the most effective ways to stop climate change is to address one of its major drivers: deforestation. Tropical deforestation represents about 20 percent of all global annual greenhouse gas emissions, and as forests are wiped out by fire, agriculture and development, that number will only continue to grow.

Deforestation in the tropics can also have disastrous impacts on rainfall in other regions of the world. One study projected that complete deforestation of the Amazon, which is more than 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) away from California, could cut the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains in half — diminishing a critical water supply for the state’s population. Reduced deforestation under the Tropical Forest Standard can help prevent harsh floods or severe droughts all over the world.

“The Tropical Forest Standard will identify the types of tropical forest protection initiatives that could be integrated into California’s prominent cap-and-trade system. It does this by allowing industries to offset a small part of their carbon emissions by paying countries in the tropics not to cut down their trees,” explained Joanna Durbin, the director of the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance at Conservation International and a key participant in the development of the Tropical Forest Standard.

2.) The Tropical Forest standard will target regions where funds from trading carbon offsets will have the greatest impact.

Tropical forests are responsible for half of all the carbon stored in the world’s forests. These ecosystems could tip the scale toward halting climate change — but only if they are protected. The Tropical Forest Standard will identify places that meet California’s strict requirements for industries to use as carbon offsets, which allow companies to “pay” for a small portion of the carbon they are putting out into the atmosphere. The money from these offsets goes into funding carbon-killing activities, such as reforestation, restoring habitats and renewable energy development. Under the Tropical Forest Standard, offset trading would be regulated by states and provinces that have shown they have already reduced deforestation levels more than 10 percent below its average rate over the past decade.

“The finance from the trade in offsets creates incentives and funding to support measures to reduce deforestation in the places where it matters most,” said Durbin in an article for Ecosystem Marketplace emphasizing the significance of passing the Tropical Forest Standard. Early analysis shows that if the Standard is approved, it could generate more than US$ 1 billion toward the reduction of tropical deforestation in the next 10 years.

Some countries are already showing the immense economic and environmental potential of carbon market programs. For example, Colombia’s recently implemented carbon tax requires companies to pay a tax for the emissions they release into the atmosphere. As an alternative to the tax, these companies can instead buy carbon credits from regulated projects within the country, leading to an increasingly high demand for forest carbon credits. In fact, this carbon tax is already generating more than US$ 250 million per year, which helps support conservation activities that preserve Colombia’s protected areas, supports forest restoration and more.

3.) The Tropical Forest Standard gives a voice to indigenous communities.

Indigenous peoples use or manage 35 percent of intact forests, yet they are often overlooked as influential actors in conservation.

To engage these groups in the political conversation, the Tropical Forest Standard includes a set of guiding principles actually written by indigenous peoples in collaboration with government representatives. Under the Standard, states and jurisdictions are required to work with indigenous peoples and forest communities throughout an offset program’s design, implementation and distribution of funds, to ensure that it respects traditional rights and knowledge.

“It’s extremely important that any activity to reduce emissions gets consent from indigenous peoples and local communities where they may be affected by those activities,” said Durbin, who led the development of the social and environmental safeguards included in the Tropical Forest Standard. This Standard recognizes the powerful role indigenous peoples and local communities play in environmental protection — especially when fighting to stop climate change.

“Indigenous peoples are victims of climate change, and yet they have knowledge developed from years of interaction with the environment that could benefit humanity,” said Minnie Degawan, the director of Conservation International’s Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program, in an earlier interview with Conservation News. “They want to partner with others, but it has to be a just partnership.”

4.) The Tropical Forest Standard can help countries bounce back from natural disasters.

A recent article published in ProPublica highlighted concerns that forest offsets are too vulnerable to disasters, such as the fires currently burning through the Amazon. If anything, said Durbin, these fires actually reinforce the need for a robust climate financing program like the Tropical Forest Standard. Durbin explained the many ways that the Tropical Forest Standard addresses permanence, the concept of determining whether carbon will remain removed from the atmosphere or if it will quickly return.

“Essentially, if a natural disaster — say, a wildfire — increases emissions in one part of a country, this can be counteracted by maintaining forests in other places within that country,” said Durbin.

In addition, the Standard requires that the underlying drivers of deforestation are addressed, supporting a path to sustainability that improves the economy and local livelihoods while maintaining forests. The Standard also obligates a portion of the credits generated to be set aside in a “buffer account,” ensuring that if deforestation increases during a natural disaster, replacement credits are available that were issued before the event occurred.

5.) The Tropical Forest Standard can help protect the world’s biodiversity.

Tropical forests are home to more than half of the world’s plant and animal biodiversity.

In the Amazon, 10 percent of the entire world’s species are at risk of extinction due to deforestation, climate change and uncontained fires surging through forestland. If the loss of biodiversity continues at this alarming rate, global food, commercial forestry and ecotourism industries could lose US$ 338 billion per year. To prevent this, the Tropical Forest Standard incentivizes industries to protect rich ecosystems like the Amazon, while simultaneously preserving biodiversity.

“Forest initiatives that meet the Tropical Forest Standard need to ensure social and environmental benefits from land management,” said Durbin. “Land management affects people, wildlife and biodiversity — each critical parts of a thriving ecosystem.”

6.) The Tropical Forest Standard can serve as a model for countries around the world.

When the California cap-and-trade system — which caps industries’ emissions while building a market around offsetting a small portion of them — began in 2013, critics were doubtful that it could actually make an impact on the environment and benefit the economy. By 2017, it had already generated US$ 6.5 billion in funds to spend on programs that battle climate change and reduced statewide emissions.

With the fifth-largest economy in the world, California could act as a model that other countries can look to when developing climate finance programs. If enacted, the Tropical Forest Standard would provide a comprehensive design for other states and industries to develop emission mitigation programs, such as the International Aviation Organization while refining its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme.

“Environmental experts, climate scientists and progressive policymakers agree that an active offsets market can help to move the needle on climate change — now,” Durbin said. “The world is watching.”