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Top Story

Failing to protect nature’s capital could cost businesses trillions
Nature is like an angel investor in the global economy: financially significant, yet widely unknown. The global pharmaceuticals industry, for example, is worth some $640bn. But few know that up to 50% of this market is based on the genetic diversity of wild species. Mangroves in Thailand are worth about $1,000 per hectare if exploited for wood. If left intact, the value of these coastal forests for flood protection, carbon capture and fish breeding grounds is more than $21,000 a hectare.

Often referred to as natural capital, nature’s infrastructure – forests, river basins, wetlands, coral reefs and so on – provides fundamental inputs to the production of all kinds of goods and services. A 2012 study by The Nature Conservancy and the Corporate EcoForum estimated that the environment provides some $72tn a year of “free” support to the global economy. That’s more than four times the size of the US economy. Meanwhile, Unep reports that the use of these natural resources is generating environmental and social costs to the tune of $6.6tn a year (pdf) – costs that could climb to $28tn a year by 2050 if we fail to take action. So while we reap the benefits of nature, we are undermining its valuable inputs.

Energy and Climate Change

The top 10 ways to combat climate change
While the federal government continues to look for enlightenment in all the wrong places, and lists of heat records being shattered and sea-level rises being charted proliferate, it’s a good time to take a step back from the policy intransigence and focus on what any of us can do here and now. Here’s The Fifth Estate’s favourite, do-able suggestions gathered from experts around Australia and abroad on how to make a positive difference to your carbon emissions and climate change.

[Ed: I like these suggestions a lot.  Nice and practical and not too hard!]

Solar power in the UK almost doubled in 2014
Solar power almost doubled in the last year, with 650,000 installations ranging from solar farms to panels on homes, figures showed. By the end of 2014 there was almost five gigawatts (5GW) of solar photovoltaic panels installed, up from 2.8GW at the end of 2013, the Department of Energy and Climate Change figures showed. The solar industry said there were now enough panels installed in the UK to supply the equivalent of 1.5m homes.

Shell urges shareholders to accept climate resolution
Shell is set to confront the risk that climate change may pose to its future, after backing a resolution from activist shareholders. The move came on the same day it announced $15bn (£10bn)_in cost cutting due to plummeting oil prices. The resolution, filed by 150 investors who control hundreds of billions of pounds, requires the oil major to test whether its business model is compatible with the pledge by the world’s nations to limit global warming to 2C.  The 2C target means only a quarter of existing, exploitable fossil fuel reserves are burnable, according to a series of recent analyses.

Shell plans to drill for Arctic oil this summer
Shell plans to drill for oil in the Arctic this summer, it confirmed as 2014 financial results came out on Thursday. The oil major is trimming US$15 billion worth of investment over the next three years, in light of falling oil prices. Yet it intends to go ahead with controversial exploitation of Arctic reserves, which it estimates could hold 500 million barrels of oil, subject to permits. Ben van Beurden, chief executive of Shell, said plummeting oil prices “create multi-billion opportunities” to cut costs and it was important “not to overreact”. The company has already spent some US$6 billion on unsuccessful attempts to extract oil in the fragile polar region over the past decade. In 2013, exploration stalled after a series of errors, with drilling barge the Kulluk running aground and a fire breaking out on the Nobel Discoverer rig.

Environment and Biodiversity

Kiwi-safe Dogs
Project Kiwi Trust is a kiwi conservation initiative saving North Island brown kiwi in one of its last strongholds on the Kuaotunu Peninsula, on the Coromandel’s east coast.  For Paula Williams, a manager of the trust, summer-time on the peninsula means vigilance. The trust looks after about 600 kiwi spread across 2,800 hectares of private and conservation-controlled land. Most of the year, the Thames-Coromandel District population is about 27,500 residents but in the peak summer season this number swells to upwards of 100,000 as holidaymakers flock to the area, many bringing their pet dogs. On the Coromandel Peninsula, stoat trapping has been so successful, that dogs now pose the biggest danger to wild kiwi. “Kiwi do not have a breastplate, so even for a fox terrier to grab a kiwi and give it one shake is enough to kill it,” says Paula. “When we lose our adult kiwi the loss is huge because of what they can potentially contribute in terms of reproduction to the population, but also because it may take the remaining adult of a pair quite some time to establish another pair.”

Movement to Take Down Thousands of Dams Goes Mainstream
This spring, for the first time in more than two centuries, American shad, striped bass, and river herring may spawn in White Clay Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River in northern Delaware. Early one morning last month, a five-person crew waded into the frigid creek and pulled down most of a timber-and-stone dam that had blocked the river’s flow since the early years of the Revolutionary War. The White Clay Creek dam was the first ever removed in the state of Delaware, but it was far from the only one removed in the United States last year. On Tuesday, the conservation group American Rivers announced that 72 dams were torn down or blown up in 2014, restoring some 730 miles of waterways from California to Pennsylvania.

Dramatic footage of African golden cat sheds light on species
Conservationists have recorded dramatic and rare video of the African golden cat, the continent’s least-studied wild cat. In the footage, captured in Kibale national park in south Uganda, the cat stalks and rushes a group of red colobus monkeys before appearing to beat a retreat. The camera trap film follows the recent publication of the first photographs of African golden cat kittens, which suggested that mothers of the two colourings of the species – a reddish brown and grey – can produce kittens of both colours. Caracal aurata is a medium-sized cat, about twice the size of a domestic cat, and strongly-built. The secretive animal is only found in central and west Africa and is rarely seen, with most of our knowledge of the cat coming from an increasing use of camera traps, which photographed the first living African golden cat in 2002.

Economy and Business

Can business learn to speak the language of natural capital?
There’s a language barrier wedged between our current economic system and the natural world. Most financial models value essential natural components such as water and air quality at zero, or “free”, when accounting for profits and losses. This makes it difficult for ecologists, policymakers and environmental groups to communicate the case for greater investment in protecting them. They struggle to speak the language of capitalism and, as a result, demands for growth are prioritised over the protection of natural assets. It’s a problem that the theory of natural capital claims to solve. By translating our ecosystem into financial values that the business world can easily digest, natural capital evaluations are designed to encourage organisations to preserve the environmental resources their operations depend upon, making better decisions for both their own sustainable growth and the long-term health of our planet.

Who will clean up global commerce?
Corporations might not be overly concerned about climate change, resource scarcity, food insecurity and so on today, but you can bet they will be tomorrow when these planetary problems set their profits plummeting.  Finding ways to right this system before it’s too late formed the basis of a recent roundtable discussion, hosted by the Guardian in association with global financial services firm PwC. At the heart of the debate was one basic question: what role can and should companies play in changing the existing system of global commerce to make it more sustainable?

After Davos: Lessons for Impact and Social Investors
The World Economic Forum has come and gone, leaving the Davos snow more than a little trampled. Now that 2,500+ of the world’s most powerful people have flown home in somewhat fewer (it seems) than 1,700 private jets, what do we know about what’s coming in 2015? And, more specifically, what lessons did the Forum hold for impact and social investors? Impact and social investing are part of the global economic reality, so the larger trends identified at Davos will be felt in our sector, too. Quantitative easing in the Eurozone, the unpredictable fallout from the Grexit, the slowdown in growth in China and India, its surge in the U.S., will all shape the world economic outlook for 2015 and will inevitably have their effects on the social sphere. And yet it was interesting to notice certain issues — some of our own favorite topics — were more prominent on the agenda than they have been in previous years.

IKEA Sales of Sustainable Products Exceed $1 Billion in 2014
IKEA sold more than €1 billion ($1.13 billion) of sustainable products in 2014, a 58 percent increase over the previous year, according to the company’s new sustainability report. These products enable people to save or generate energy, reduce water use, cut waste and live healthier lives, the company says. The 2014 IKEA Group Sustainability Report, released Wednesday, shows its People & Planet Positive strategy is on track and delivering good results. The strong sustainability performance also comes alongside strong financial results, which show an increase in total sales to €28.7 billion ($32.1 billion), a 5.9 percent increase from last year.

Kapiti water use drops 3.6m litres a day since meters
Figures released by the council show a stark contrast between this summer and last year’s pre-water meter consumption. Last week it was reported bores were not yet needed to top up Kapiti’s central catchment fed from Waikanae River. This came despite January’s big dry – with only two millimetres of rain as the month neared an end, instead of the average 49mm. Council figures obtained by the Observer show a significant drop in summer water consumption, after metered charging kicked off from July. The average daily use across the district this summer from December 1 through to January 19 was 16.5 million litres per day. Average daily consumption for the same time last year was 20.1m litres – a drop of about 3.6m litres daily.

Waste and the Circular Economy

What plastic can learn from steel in a circular economy
The global plastics industry generates over 280m metric tons in waste every year (pdf). The majority ends up in landfills, incinerators or as marine and land litter. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 32m tons of plastics waste were generated in 2012, with only about 9% recovered for recycling (collected, sorted, baled and sold). Actual recycling rates are even lower because not everything in the bales is recycled. This is especially true with mixed plastic bales, which are mostly sent to developing countries for “low-cost” recycling. And this is not just an issue of waste or disposal. These environmental health and safety practices impact workers and local ecosystems. The by-products and waste from these processors are often disposed of in ways that would be considered illegal in the countries where the waste originated, including dumping into “self-cleaning” streams that eventually find their way into oceans.

Worms turn Canberra food waste into farm fertiliser
Ever been to a restaurant and haven’t been able to finish your meal? A worm farm is turning food scraps from Canberra eateries into compost for NSW farmers. The farm is the initiative of Craig Shaw, the proud owner of three million worms at his fertiliser operation at Gundaroo, north of Canberra His worms turn food scraps into both compost and worm tea, a liquid fertiliser. Mr Shaw said the worms were producing between 16 to 20 cubic metres of compost a year. “It has been shown that if you have a manure or a paper waste then the cast coming out of it is a lower quality than say a food waste which is quite balanced,” he said.

Politics and Society

Norwegian Reality Series Shows Fashionistas the Dark Side of ‘Dead Cheap Fashion’
What happens when you send three young fashionistas to a Cambodian sweatshop for a month? Aftenposten, Norway’s biggest newspaper, answered this question with a five-part, online reality TV series. In “Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion,” fashion-conscious Norwegians Anniken Jorgensen, Frida Ottesen and Ludvig Hambro fly to Phnom Penh, where they work with and interview people that work in the type of facility that produces clothes for some of their favorite brands. The three step fully into the life of the average textile worker, sleeping on concrete, living on $3 a day and sewing for eight hours a day. “The truth is, that we are rich because they’re poor,” Hambro said. “We are rich because it costs us 10 euros (about $11) to buy a T-shirt [at] H&M. But somebody else has to starve for you to be able to buy it.”

In South Africa, university is open to rich and poor – but what about the missing middle?
The beginning of the academic year in South Africa is the most stressful time for parents of children who come from poor, rural and working class backgrounds. This when they have to confront the difficult question of where the money will come from to fund their children’s higher education. University administrators are also grappling with tough decisions on how to fund the education of brilliant students who need financial help. At my institution, we have had to inform 130 academically talented but financially needy students that they cannot come to Rhodes University in 2015 because our allocation of financial aid has been used up. The pain of communicating this message to a student is unbearable. It is devastating for a young and ambitious person who, by sheer accident of nature, happened to be born into a family of little means.

Christchurch City Council opposes deep-sea oil drilling
Environmental groups are applauding the Christchurch City Council’s stance against deep-sea oil drilling off Canterbury.  New Zealand Petroleum & Minerals (NZPAM), the government agency responsible for managing the country’s oil, gas, mineral and coal resources, is seeking comment from local authorities and iwi on its proposed 2015 block offer, which includes a large offshore area stretching from South Canterbury to Banks Peninsula. The city council opposes the move and is particularly worried that the Offshore Great South Canterbury block is too close to the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary and Department of Conservation reserve land.

Museum’s ‘Dippy’ dinosaur makes way for blue whale
The exchange will not happen overnight: the complex logistics involved mean it will be 2017 before the great cetacean is hanging from the ceiling of the iconic Victorian Hintze Hall. The museum thinks the change will increase the wow factor for visitors. But it also believes the whale can better convey all the cutting-edge science conducted at the institution… The museum has chosen the whale to lead what it calls its “three great narratives”. These cover the origins and evolution of life, the diversity of life on Earth today, and the long-term sustainability of humans’ custodianship of the planet. The cetacean has something to say on all them, particularly the last. Blue whales were hunted to the brink of extinction before a ban on their exploitation was put in place in the 1960s.

Climate concern ‘linked to floods’
Public belief in the reality of climate change has risen in Britain, partly because of the 2013 winter floods, according to a report. Concern has almost returned to the high levels reported in 2005, say University of Cardiff researchers. Britons named climate change as a major issue facing the UK alongside crime and education in a national survey. Many see climate change as contributing at least in part to floods, especially when they have been affected directly.  However, while there is evidence that extreme weather events are becoming more common, scientists say it is not possible to attribute individual weather events to climate change.

Built Environment

Amendment to infrastructure bill puts cycling investment on a level with roads
This week, the House of Commons added in a requirement for a national ‘cycling and walking investment strategy’ to the infrastructure bill. For the first time, investment in safe routes to school and work places may receive as much parliamentary attention as ‘big kit’ infrastructure such as High Speed 2 and major roads. Originally this proposal was simply supported by just a few non-governmental organisations. So how did it turn into something roads minister John Hayes MP described as having “more tributes… than a ’60s pop band”? And, even more importantly, what could it mean for a country that continues to struggle to pull itself up from some of the lowest cycling rates in Europe?

Food Systems

Bioenergy “incompatible” with sustainable food production – study
The use of land to grow energy crops is not compatible with sustainable food production, Princeton scientists have warned. Advocates see bioenergy as a vital renewable resource that can help to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But a report published by the World Resources Institute said estimates for bioenergy potential were based on double counting and “technological optimism”. It urged governments to scrap subsidies and targets for use of such fuel for transportation or electricity generation. Tim Searchinger, lead author, told RTCC: “The basic rule is: Don’t divert the productive capacity of land to bioenergy, because there is always a big cost. People have just not calculated those costs.


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