Sustainable Development News

Sustainable development news from around the world with a focus on Australia and New Zealand.
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Top Story

Big cats play a bigger role in plant preservation than we knew before
Big cats love their meat. They are also strict carnivores. This puts them at the top of the food chain, where they play an important ecological role by regulating prey populations and structuring animal communities. Members of the cat family, also known as felids, can have an indirect effect on plant life. Studies have documented how they can affect the size of plant populations by limiting the numbers of herbivores in a particular area. This is called a “trophic cascade”. But our recent research shows, for the first time, that large cats can affect the plant life in their environments by means other than eating herbivores. They do this by dispersing seeds in their scat.

[Ed: The complexity of ecosystems (biodiversity) is illustrated well through examples of trophic cascades.  If you haven’t seen it already, here’s a fantastic video about how wolves change rivers]

Energy and Climate Change

CSIRO cactus skin research could create membrane that improves car fuel efficiency
The humble cactus could hold the key to the latest breakthrough in fuel efficiency and energy production. Researchers from the CSIRO have been able to artificially replicate the skin of a cactus, creating a waterproof membrane that could be applied to fuel cells in cars to improve efficiency.

Environment and Biodiversity

Madagascar’s unique ‘Spiny Forest’ is fast being turned into charcoal
The Spiny Forest is like nowhere else on Earth, but it’s disappearing fast. It’s a bizarre Dr Seussian world of spiky octopus trees and swollen baobabs, and almost all its species exist only in Madagascar. The strange vegetation teems with even weirder wildlife: there are ghostly white lemurs impervious to thorns, birds that sing communally, and a chameleon that spends most of its life as an egg. Once there were ten-foot tall elephant birds and gorilla-sized lemurs too, but they went extinct just a few centuries ago. Unsurprisingly, scientists have long ranked the Spiny Forest as one of the world’s most important “ecoregions”. Even so, hardly anyone outside Madagascar has heard of it. The tragedy is that the Spiny Forest is rapidly, silently, going up in smoke while the world looks the other way.

Three ways artificial intelligence is helping to save the world
[Machine learning] revolves around enlisting computers in the task of sorting through the massive amounts of data that modern technology has allowed us to generate (a.k.a. “big data”). One of the places machine learning is turning out to be the most beneficial is in the environmental sciences, which have generated huge amounts of information from monitoring Earth’s various systems — underground aquifers, the warming climate or animal migration, for example. A slew of projects have been popping up in this relatively new field, called computational sustainability…

Emerging threat from climate change: ocean oxygen levels are starting to drop
Just when you thought you had most of the threats from climate change covered.

Banned pesticides ‘not equally harmful’ to bees
The largest field study so far in to the group of pesticides called “neonicotinoids” has concluded that each acts differently on the brains of the bees. One of the chemicals widely considered as being the most toxic wasn’t shown to affect bees at a level found in the countryside.  However other “neonics” were shown to cause significant harm to bumblebees. The results of the study are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The war on elephants (Long read)
Garamba, in the north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is one of the oldest national parks in Africa, designated in 1938.  It covers 14,000 sq km (5,500 sq miles) dominated by savannah grasses, which when green and lush can reach 3m in height, enveloping the elephants and concealing them even from the air.  It’s tough going on foot with the criss-crossing streams that feed the great Congo River, punctuated by papyrus marsh, forest and scrub.  The park was made a World Heritage Site in 1980 for its rare Northern White Rhinos, and with 22,000 elephants back then, they never seemed in danger.

Warm April weather delays mushroom foraging season, flowers also affected
April is Diego Bonetto’s favourite month of the year. The professional forager and wild food advocate usually spends his autumn days in the state forest in Sydney’s south, picking mushrooms. But this year he has been studying weather maps instead of the gills of fungi, as unusually hot weather and little rain has delayed the mushroom season.

Alex Smith: Marine sanctuary must go ahead
NEW ZEALAND – There has been a lot of heated discussion recently around the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary. So much so, it’s easy to lose track of why the sanctuary is so important. The Kermadec Islands and the surrounding oceans are one of the most special and pristine marine environments in the world.

Department of Conservation to open Invercargill Kakapo facility to the public
NEW ZEALAND – Kakapo are now living in Invercargill and the public can visit the rare parrots for $2 a ticket. The Department of Conservation is opening its kakapo hand rearing facility to the public on Sunday. The public will be able to see up to 10 young kakapo chicks who have been hand raised.

Economy and Business

VW and Shell try to block EU push for electric cars
VW and Shell have united to try to block Europe’s push for electric cars and more efficient cars, saying biofuels should be at heart of efforts to green the industry instead. The EU is planning two new fuel efficiency targets for 2025 and 2030 to help meet promises made at the Paris climate summit last December. But executives from the two industrial giants launched a study on Wednesday night proposing greater use of biofuels, CO2 car labelling, and the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS) instead.

Shareholder pressure mounts on downgraded ExxonMobil
A growing list of major investors is backing calls on ExxonMobil to acknowledge climate risk, after its credit rating was downgraded on Tuesday. British insurer Aviva and Seattle’s public pension fund are among the latest to declare their support for a shareholder resolution to be considered at next month’s AGM. California’s CalPERS, New York City Pension Fund and the Church of England are also in favour. They are asking Exxon to analyse the impact of a 2C global warming limit on the value of its oil assets and publish the findings by 2017.

Pacific Alliance acts on climate change: business supports green growth platform in region
26 companies with operations across Pacific Alliance countries (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) have added their voice in support of climate action by pledging their commitment to work with government to create a supportive environment for green growth.

RE100 cements partnership with Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewables Center
RE100, led by The Climate Group in partnership with CDP, is working together with the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewables Center (BRC) to accelerate the procurement of renewable energy by some of the world’s most influential companies. The partnership aims to increase renewable demand (buyers), find renewable opportunities (developers and intermediaries), and provide the means to bridge the two through tools and knowledge.

Waste and the Circular Economy

Tracking the growth of the circular economy
A recent report released by UPS and GreenBiz titled, “The Growth of the Circular Economy”, includes a survey of circular economy knowledge among executives and thoughts leaders in a corporate context, with a strong weighting towards the USA.  The goal of the research was to capture an understanding of the growth of the circular economy concept within a business context, a new model where resources are kept in use and at their highest utility for as long as possible.

New circular economy model for logistics developed by Deutsche Post DHL
Deutsche Post DHL Group, along with Cranfield University and the Ellen Macarthur Foundation has developed a new circular economy model for logistics. In a new report, Waste not, Want not. Caputring the value of the circular economy through reverse logistics, the partners have introduced the Reverse Logistics Maturity Model that helps organisations map out and continuously improve reverse logistics processes for their products.

Politics and Society

What the Green Climate Fund really means for international development
The GCF intends to support clean energy, low-carbon cities, low-emission agriculture, forestry and climate adaptation… What by no means is clear is whether the GCF can achieve those goals — or even how the fund, with its unwieldy governance structure, will answer a series of fundamental questions about how it intends to do business. That’s where things get complicated — and contentious. Should the fund make grants, low-interest loans, market-rate loans or equity investments? Should the money go to governments, businesses or nonprofits? Should the fund support efforts to clean up fossil fuels, in particular capture and sequester carbon dioxide from coal plants?

Alec Baldwin, Helen Clark call for forest protection and land rights
Hollywood actor Alec Baldwin and the former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark have called for the protection of forests and land rights for indigenous groups to help fight climate change.

Obama declares disaster as Marshall Islands suffers worst-ever drought
Barack Obama has declared the severe drought in the Marshall Islands a disaster, opening the way for emergency US funding for the Pacific island nation… The low-lying Marshall Islands is extremely reliant on consistent rainfall for its water supply, given there are few freshwater reservoirs or sources of groundwater. The strong El Niño climate event has fueled the drought, with Micronesia, Palau, Fiji and Papua New Guinea also affected to varying degrees.

UK government faces second court battle over air pollution plans
The UK government is to be sued in the high court over its air pollution plans, just a year after losing at the supreme court and being ordered to fulfil its legal duty to cut pollution rapidly. A request for a new judicial review by environmental lawyers at ClientEarth was granted by a judge on Thursday.

UK support for fracking hits new low
Public support for fracking in the UK has fallen to a new low, according to government polling, at the same time as backing for renewable energy has hit a record high. The survey, which is repeated every few months, shows that public enthusiasm for the controversial energy extraction method has fallen steadily in the past two years while opposition to it has risen dramatically.

Election 2016: Greens would tax coal, ban new mines in bid to save Great Barrier Reef
AUSTRALIA – The Greens would block new thermal coal mines and coal seam gas fields, as well as taxing coal exports, under a policy that would channel funds into restoring health to the Great Barrier Reef. During a visit to the reef on Thursday, Greens leader Richard Di Natale unveiled a seven-point plan to curb Australia’s fossil fuel industries to limit impacts on the reef from climate change.

Malcolm Turnbull reprises elements of Tony Abbott’s scare campaign to fight Labor plan
AUSTRALIA – The battlelines have been drawn on climate change ahead of an imminent election campaign, with the government reprising elements of Tony Abbott’s long-running scare campaign against Labor’s plans for a price on carbon. In a refrain familiar, senior ministers including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have labelled a proposed emissions trading scheme as a “tax” that will push up power prices, destroy jobs and slow economic growth.

Carbon Fee Debate Goes Mainstream in Washington State
USA – As governments worldwide begin imposing fees on pollution to try to protect the climate, a debate over dueling approaches — one that has long been restricted to conferences and academia — is becoming prominent in Washington state. Washington voters will decide in November whether to introduce a carbon tax on fossil fuels and electricity from coal and natural gas, with the goal of slowing global warming while reducing taxes on sales and manufacturing and keeping total tax revenue flat overall.

Built Environment

Why more cities need to add up the economic value of trees
Your parents were wrong: money does grow on trees. Cities routinely rake up tens of millions of dollars from their urban forests annually in ways that are not always obvious. Leafy canopies lower summer air conditioning bills, but more shade also means less blade to maintain thousands of acres of grass. Health-wise, trees contribute to lower asthma rates and birth defects by removing air pollutants.

South East Water and Villawood in groundbreaking sustainable water partnership
AUSTRALIA – A game-changing approach to managing water and sewerage services is set to get the go-ahead in a new housing estate in south-east Melbourne. Water utility South East Water has partnered with developer Villawood Properties to showcase sustainable water-saving technologies at a 460-home estate known as Aquarevo, which is being planned for Lyndhurst on the site of a decommissioned water purification plant owned by South East Water.

Sea level rise: why policy might leave thousands stranded
AUSTRALIA – There currently appears to be no national framework directing the protection of assets and the investment they represent from the impacts of rising sea levels, more frequent storm surges and increased erosion in the coastal zone.

Book review: Designing for Hope – Pathways to Regenerative Sustainability
In Designing for Hope, University of Melbourne’s Dr Dominique Hes and University of Pretoria associate professor Chrisna Du Plessis provide a comprehensive overview of a deeper, biophilic approach to the built environment. Starting from first principles of why it is important to transition from an approach of “less bad” outcomes to one centred on “more good” outcomes, and then exploring the various dimensions of the ecological world view, it maps out a pathway for transforming both practice and practitioners.

Food Systems

Inside agriculture’s sustainability inflection point
With responsibility for a third of global warming and needing to feed 9 billion people by mid-century, agriculture is feeling the heat — and opportunities — to change.  Consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from and how it is made — eschewing genetically modified foods, eggs from caged chickens and so on — while the world’s supply of fresh water and arable land shrinks. Governments are cracking down on food waste while investors want to know how palm oil is sourced.


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